The Use of Lithium in the Energy Economy

Lithium, often referred to as “white gold,” has become a highly sought-after mineral in the energy economy. This silver-white colored soft metal is known for its high flammability and reactivity, and it is typically stored in mineral oil to prevent corrosion and tarnish. The primary uses of lithium include making lithium-ion batteries as found in electric cars, lubricating greases, and creating glass and ceramics. It also has uses in metallurgy, nuclear fusion, and lithium carbonate, which is a medication for bipolar disorder.

The commercial production of lithium involves isolating it from a mixture of potassium chloride and lithium chloride through electrolysis. To understand the lithium production chain, it is important to consider the concept of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE). LCE is the first chemical in the lithium production chain and is used to calculate lithium production. Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are a key application of lithium, known for their advanced battery technology that utilizes lithium ions. These batteries have high voltage and charge storage capabilities per unit mass and unit volume.

Direct lithium extraction (DLE) is another important concept, as it is a very beneficial method of obtaining lithium. It involves the extraction of lithium from brine using adsorption, ion-exchange, membrane-separation, or solvent extraction processes. DLE offers benefits such as reducing the footprint of evaporation ponds, decreasing production times, increasing lithium recovery rates, reducing freshwater usage, and improving product purity.

The demand for lithium is expected to rise significantly, from 500,000 metric tons of LCE in 2021 to three million to four million metric tons in 2030. Currently, the largest lithium reserves are found in Chile, with 9.2 million metric tons in 2020. However, Australia is currently the world’s largest producer of lithium. The global lithium consumption for batteries is 77.8k mt LCE, while non-battery uses account for 134.9k mt LCE. By 2025, the projected global lithium demand is expected to reach 1 million mt of LCE. This is well below the forecasted global lithium supply, which is estimated to be 814k mt of LCE.

The demand for lithium is anticipated to increase by 22 times by 2030, creating a significant supply-demand imbalance. Traditionally, established lithium-producing nations include Australia, Chile, China, and Argentina.  Thankfully, several countries have recently mapped their lithium resources and reserves, including Mexico, Canada, Bolivia, the United States, Ukraine, Siberia, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and Peru. Hopefully, these countries will begin mining their own lithium reserves and contribute to the growing global demand. 

The lithium supply chain is heavily reliant on the international mining industry. The United States holds only 3.6% of global lithium reserves, compared to countries such as Chile and Australia that dominate the supply. The growing demand for lithium has led to an increased focus on mining other minerals such as graphite, cobalt, nickel, rare earth elements (REEs), manganese, copper, silicon, chromium, and zinc. Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan especially offer compelling geology and optimal locations for mining these essential minerals. 

The skyrocketing demand for lithium is largely driven by the increasing adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) and the global push to cut carbon emissions. Powering EVs requires significant amounts of lithium, with approximately 8 kg of lithium in a lithium-ion battery pack for a single electric car. In 2021, the global production of lithium reached 100,000 tons, while worldwide reserves stood at 22 million tons, enough to produce nearly 2.5 billion batteries. It is estimated that around 2 billion battery electric, plug-in hybrid, and fuel-cell electric vehicles will be needed by 2050 to achieve net-zero emissions. Increasing the supply of lithium will be essential to sustain the direction that transportation is currently headed in. 

Lithium In The Energy Economy
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