Lithium Overview

Lithium is a relatively abundant metallic element and is widely distributed at very low concentrations in various mineral compounds and salts in the earth’s crust and in seawater. Lithium is never found in its elemental form in nature due to its reactivity, but occurs in over 100 different mineral compounds which pose no threat to health. The USGS estimated global reserves of lithium at 14 million tonnes in 2018, however, deposits which are economically viable to exploit are relatively rare and fall into two broad categories – hard rock (including clays) and brines.

 

Chemical symbol

Li

Discovered

1817 in Sweden by Johan August Arfvedson in the mineral petalite (see below). The name is derived from the Greek, “lithos” meaning stone.

Description

A silvery-white to grey Group 1 alkali metal with a metallic lustre when fresh

Atomic number

3

Atomic weight

6.94 - the lightest of all metals, floats on water

Density

0.534g/cm3 – the least dense of all elements which are not gases at 20°C

Hardness

Very soft (0.6 on Mohs hardness scale, Talc = 1, Diamond = 10)

Melting point

180.54°C (lithium has the highest specific heat capacity of any solid element)

Boiling point

1,342°C

Electrical resistivity

9.5mΩ cm – Very low resistivity, making Li an excellent conductor of electricity

Electronegativity

1.0 – Li has one of the lowest electronegativities of all elements, i.e. it readily loses its electrons to more electronegative elements which is a key property for its use in batteries. It also has the highest electrochemical potential of all metals

Occurrence

Li is never found in nature in its elemental form, but always in compounds such as rock forming minerals or salts (including brines and seawater)

Li Minerals

More than 100 known Li-bearing minerals, although only a handful are currently economic to extract

Li Chemicals

Commercially produced lithium chemicals include lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide monohydrate (“lithium hydroxide”), lithium bromide, lithium chloride and butyl lithium

Source: British Geological Survey, Webelements, Talison Lithium

Within the hard rock category, spodumene, as found at Savannah’s Mina do Barroso project in Portugal, has been by far the most common lithium bearing mineral exploited in economically viable deposits to date. Spodumene is typically found in pegmatites which are igneous rocks similar in mineral composition to granites but with very coarse grain sizes. Mina do Barroso will produce the mineral spodumene, not elemental lithium. Spodumene is non-toxic and non-reactive.

With the expansion of the lithium mining industry in Australia (now the world’s largest producer) in recent years, hard rock production has been re-established as the single largest source of lithium raw material globally over brines.

Common lithium-bearing minerals found in hard rock deposits:

Mineral name

Chemical formula

Li content (Li%)

Notes

Spodumene

LiAlSi2O6

3.7

The most abundant Li-bearing mineral found in economic deposits, such as Mina do Barroso, Portugal and Greenbushes in Australia.

Amblygonite

(Li,Na)AlPO4(F,OH)

3.4-4.7

Has previously been exploited for Li in Zimbabwe

Eucryptite

LiAlSiO4

2.1-5.5

Has previously been exploited for Li in Zimbabwe

Hectorite

Na0.3(Mg,Li)3Si4O10(OH)2

0.5

A smectite clay mineral currently being evaluated as a potential economic source of Li

Jadarite

LiNaSiB3O7(OH)

7.3

Discovered in Serbia in 2007. Not currently worked, but being evaluated as a potential economic source of Li

Lepidolite

K2(Li, Al)5-6{Si6-7Al2-1O20}

1.4-3.6

An uncommon form of mica found in pegmatites

Petalite

LiAlSi4O10

1.6-2.3

Often occurs with lepidolite in pegmatites

Zinnwaldite

KLiFeAl(AlSi3)O10(F,OH)2

1.6

Another Li bearing mica found in pegmatite and quartz veins

Source: British Geological Survey, Company

Brines (fluids containing dissolved solids) can potentially contain economically viable concentrations of lithium. Continental brines, found in poorly draining basins have become significant production centres for lithium, particularly where high solar evaporation rates can be used as a low cost means of increasing the lithium concentration once the brine is at surface prior to subsequent processing. Work is also underway assessing the potential to extract lithium from brines associated with geothermally active areas and oilfields, where brines are extracted as a waste product from underground formations along with oil and gas.

Key features of lithium deposits:

Deposit class

Deposit type

Description

Typical grade

Examples

Hard rock

Pegmatites

Coarse-grained igneous rock formed during late-stage crystallisation of magmas

1.0-4% Li2O

Greenbushes, Australia; Mina do Barroso, Portugal

Hectorite

Lenses of smectite clay in association with volcanic centres

0.4% Li2O

Kings Valley, USA; Sonora, Mexico

Jadarite

Altered basinal sediments

1.5% Li2O

Jadar, Serbia

Brine

Continental

Salt pans/salars in enclosed basins with enriched lithium solutions

0.04-0.15% Li

Clayton Valley, USA; Salar de Atacama, Chile; Salar de Hombre Muerto, Argentina

Geothermal

Enriched lithium bearing solutions associated with geothermally active areas

0.01-0.035% Li

Salton Sea area, USA

Oilfield

Lithium enriched solutions removed as waste product from active oilfields

0.01-0.05% Li

Smackover oilfield, USA

Source: British Geological Survey, Company

Trade and data reporting in the lithium industry

Trade in lithium is largely centred around key lithium raw materials and chemicals such as spodumene concentrate, lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide which vary significantly in their lithium content. In parallel with this, reference data relating to lithium grades in mineral assays and ore resources and reserves for hard rock and brine projects are also reported using a number of differing measurement units, e.g. ppm Li and percentages of Li, Li2O, or lithium carbonate. To normalise this data, market participants will often also report data in terms of “lithium carbonate equivalent” or “LCE” so that information can be easily compared on a like-for-like basis. Conversion to LCE is based upon the formulae in the table below.

Conversion factors for differing lithium substances:

To convert from

Chemical formula

To convert to:

 

 

Lithium (Li)

content

Lithium oxide (Li2O) content

Lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE)

 

 

Multiply by:

Lithium

Li

1

2.153

5.323

Lithium oxide

Li2O

0.464

1

2.473

Lithium Carbonate

Li2CO3

0.188

0.404

1

Lithium Hydroxide Monohydrate

LiOH.H20

0.165

0.356

0.880

Source: British Geological Survey

Lithium Pricing

Despite its rapid growth profile in recent years, the lithium market remains a modestly sized speciality chemical market and lithium product pricing remains relatively opaque in comparison to the much larger, more liquid, markets for precious, base and bulk metals.

However, prices are published by several providers for spodumene and a number of lithium chemicals including lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide and lithium chloride. These prices are provided in various currencies and based on despatch or delivery at a number of relevant locations, e.g. Australia, China, Europe.

The majority of lithium material is bought and sold under long-term contractual agreements with prices formulae based on published prices adjusted for various factors including product quality and delivery/despatch location. Trade in the spot market is relatively minor at present, but this may change if the market expands significantly over the next decade as expected.

Prices for chemical grade lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide and Spodumene, 2011-18:

Source: Roskill, Benchmark Minerals

At present there is no futures market in lithium, but the London Metals Exchange (LME) announced in August 2017 that it was evaluating the option of offering a futures contract having been approached to consider the possibility by industry players. In June 2019, the LME announced that following extensive consultation with the industry it was partnering with Fastmarkets for pricing, and would begin promoting market acceptance of Fastmarkets’ lithium reference prices. The LME considers that continued adoption of reference pricing across the industry will pave the way for the launch of its lithium futures contract in due course.

Lithium Market Dynamics

E-mobility in Europe

Lithium Battery Industry Initiatives in Europe

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