In recent decades, lithium has become a truly global commodity, driving the world’s mining operations while powering an increasing array of modern technology. With so many applications now drawing on the lithium supply, however, demand for the resource has gone through the roof. This has led to hundreds of new lithium mines being built or planned to increase supply and furnish the needs of consumers and industry as the world moves towards net zero carbon.

Alongside graphite, cobalt, nickel, and copper, lithium is one of the critical minerals essential to modern rechargeable batteries and electric vehicle (EV) technology. As the world’s largest lithium supplier – producing over 50% on its own – Australia is and will remain a central player in the field.

Alongside China and Chile, these three nations account for 90% of all lithium mined and produced. Over 25 years, its producers have waxed and waned: in 1995, the USA was the largest, sourcing 37% of the total product, but fast forward to 2023, and the US is down to 1%.

The use cases for Li have also changed significantly in that time. Initially used heavily in ceramics and glass alongside lubricating products and a myriad of niche cases, most lithium (76%) is now tied up in the rechargeable battery value chain. Another shift is underway: the demand for immense supply increases. To highlight the scale, in 2021, the global lithium supply surpassed 100,000 tonnes for the first time. To meet demand, that number must multiply to 3,000,000 tonnes by 2030. A mind-boggling task, if there ever was one.

What Challenges Face Our Lithium Miners?

Often dubbed the ‘White Gold’ of electric vehicles, lithium mining is time-consuming, energy-intensive, and generally split between two methods. Most of the world’s lithium is found in what are known as Salars, or underground salt brine reservoirs. These frequently occur in the ‘Lithium Triangle’, a patch of land high up in the South American Andes that borders Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. The salt brines also occur in large quantities in China. On the flip side, Australia’s massive reserves are more likely to be contained in hard rock deposits; the most common of these is Spodumene.

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Let’s explore the two production methods. Producing Lithium from Brine Reservoirs: While a relatively straightforward process, attaining lithium from brine reservoirs still takes considerable time and resources. Step one is to pump the salt and lithium-rich water into purpose-built evaporation ponds on the surface, waiting while the H2O disappears and the salts reduce to then extract the reduced Li byproduct. The evaporation process takes months and is followed by a production phase, including:

  • Brine purification, removing contaminants and unwanted elements
  • Chemical treatment to separate desirable and undesirable products
  • Filtration to remove any solids
  • Treat with soda ash (Na2CO3) to precipitate out lithium carbonate (Li2CO3)
  • Wash and dry the lithium carbonate into the final product

Producing Lithium from Hard Rock Reserves:

As its name suggests, hard rock lithium mining is hard work.The ore must be mined, crushed, then roasted at 2012°F (1100°C) before being cooled to 140°F (65°C), milled and roasted again, this time with sulfuric acid. The process is known as acid leaching. In the last phase, hydrogen in the sulfuric acid is replaced with lithium ions, producing lithium sulfate.

Exploring the Growing Use-Cases for Lithium

Lithium is revered due to its high electrochemical potential, allowing it to be used as an anode in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. It is also the lightest and least dense metal on the periodic table. Rechargeable batteries are now in operation all over the world, powering an array of industries and applications, including:

  • Vehicle operations
  • Heavy-duty power tools
  • Sensors
  • Computers
  • Electronic and medical devices
  • Electrical grid system and load-leveling

While produced and discarded by the billions yearly, current estimates suggest that up to 95% of a lithium-ion battery is recyclable. Li is also precious thanks to its high charge-to-weight ratio and is the least likely of the battery metals to be substituted. All of this points to the value of lithium maintaining over time and growing until supply catches up with demand. As the world’s biggest car manufacturers slowly turn toward EV manufacturing and away from fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine, they have become the most vital lithium value chain supporters. An average EV battery contains between 1.4 and 3.0 kilograms of lithium, the equivalent of a hefty 7.5 to 16.0 kilograms of lithium carbonate.

A battery of this size would support a 64-kilometer journey in an EV before needing to be recharged. However, companies like Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and Tesla are already pushing the boundaries on what a Li-powered EV can achieve. As we can see, most of the use cases for lithium revolve around its use in lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, mainly for vehicles and transport but also to support an emerging range of technologies and tools.

In Summary

Summarising the future of lithium mining and its applications is relatively simple – it’s bright. Demand for the metal continues to grow as it’s a critical component in the rechargeable battery revolution and, in turn, the hunt for net zero carbon. There will be challenges along the way, one of which will be how miners meet that demand safely, efficiently, and sustainably. New mining locations are being sought after and planned as we speak, but the mining industry is also under more pressure than ever to lift its game while providing the world with the basic materials it needs to proceed.

As we’ve seen, the two main methods for producing lithium carbonate are extensive, requiring vast armies of personnel, specialized equipment, and energy before making a usable product. Certain areas of the world are blessed with massive reserves of lithium in brine pools and hard rock deposits, and it will be these countries that do the bulk of the heavy work required to lift technologies like large-scale EV production off the ground. Yet, while the future demand for lithium is solid, our ability to source, produce, and then recycle it will be equally vital in ensuring its long-term success as a reliable resource for human innovation. You’ll find further resource links below.


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