Lithium is being hailed as the future of clean energy, with the eyes of the world on this metal and the mining industry. Due to its unique chemical properties, lithium-ion batteries are able to store large amounts of energy and can be used to power everything from electric cars to smartphones, which can help pave the way to the decarbonized future. But how much do you really know about this "white gold"?
Your first interaction with lithium might have been in science class while learning the periodic table. You can find it at atomic number 3 with the symbol Li, in the alkali metal group. It is the lightest of the solid elements, and the metal itself is soft, silvery-white, and lustrous.
Lithium was initially discovered by Swedish chemist Johan August Arfwedson in 1817, while he was investigating the mineral petalite. After experimentation, he was able to isolate lithium metal as a salt, and named it after the Greek word lithos, meaning stone. Lithium would not be found in its pure form until 1821, when William Thomas Brande would isolate the element using electrolysis of lithium oxide.
Until after World War II, there was hardly any use for lithium apart from using it as a lubricant and in the glass industry. It's also used in pharmaceuticals to help neutralize peoples' moods. After WW2, lithium was used to obtain tritium for national defense uses.
Today, we mostly know lithium for its use in batteries. Work began on lithium batteries in 1912, but it wasn't until the 1970s when the first non-rechargeable lithium batteries became commercially accessible. These batteries really took off in the 1990s, and today an estimated 71% of lithium production goes to battery end use!
Lithium Deposits & Mining
Lithium deposits are found all over the world, with the main sources being from South America, Australia, and China. There are three main types of mined lithium deposits - hard rock, brines, and clays / other sedimentary. Each of these deposit types has its own unique challenges and opportunities for the mining industry!
Hard Rock Lithium
Hard rock lithium mines tend to look similar to other hard rock mines. They're generally mined by a traditional open pit mining method, with the ore minerals usually being spodumene and petalite, hosted in igneous pegmatite intrusions. These deposits can be mined and the ore processed into lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide.
Lithium brines have gained great interest, as they can be more economical for lithium extraction. These brines are categorized in three main ways - continental brines, geothermal brines, and oil field brines. Continental brines are the most common brine deposit type, with geothermal and oil field brines making up very little of the known global lithium resources. To extract the lithium, brines are generally pumped to the surface and then concentrated by a succession of evaporation ponds. After a period of approximately 9-12 months, these produce lithium in the form of lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide.
Lithium Clays / Other Sedimentary Deposits
Lithium clays / sedimentary deposits make up the least known section of global lithium resources. These resources can be found in clay deposits and lacustrine evaporites, generally in the mineral smectite. Many companies are in the research and development phases for these deposits, however there is currently no commercial production from them.
The demand for lithium has increased significantly in recent years due to its use in lithium-ion batteries. As a part of global decarbonization goals, many countries are pushing for the use of electric vehicles, which on average take 8 - 10 kg of lithium each! This will likely result in an increase in demand of battery metals, including lithium. By 2030, the demand for lithium is expected to more than double! Global automakers are beginning to invest into the discovery and development of lithium projects, however the supply chain for this critical mineral is still lagging behind the expected demand, with mines needing to expand approximately 20% annually to keep up.
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The 2023 Lithium Resource Report by Prospector is a great resource to discover global lithium mining and exploration projects!