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What do we use Lithium for?

 

Key Points

  • Well-established market for lithium mineral concentrate, in technical applications such as glass and ceramics.
  • High growth market for lithium chemicals used in re-chargeable batteries; sustained growth since the 1990s and likely to grow even faster with the rise of the electric vehicle, grid battery storage and personal electronic devices.

Technical Applications – established uses

Lithium products are used directly in some technical applications, when they are concentrated to around 5% and sold directly, mostly for use in glass and ceramics, the current largest global market for lithium. These products generally require lithium with low iron concentration to meet end-user requirements.

Glass and Ceramics 

  • Glass – lithium provides additional durability, particularly with regards to temperature.  
  • Ceramics:  - lithium lowers firing temperatures and thermal expansion and increases the strength of ceramic bodies, including heatproof ceramic cookware. 
  • Specialty Applications: including induction cook tops and cookware. Lithium’s extremely high coefficient of thermal expansion makes these products resistant to thermal shock and imparts mechanical strength. 

Other Technical Applications 

Lithium is also used in a variety of metallurgical applications including: 

  • Steel Castings: the addition of lithium to continuous casting mould fluxes assists in providing thermal insulation and lubricates the surface of the steel in the continuous casting process.  
  • Iron Castings: in the production of iron castings, such as engine blocks, lithium reduces the effect of veining, thereby reducing the number of defective casts.  

Chemical Applications – the fastest growing market

From concentrates, lithium can then be processed further to form a variety of chemicals, including lithium carbonate, lithium bromide, lithium chloride, butyl lithium and lithium hydroxide. The fastest growing (and second-largest) market for lithium globally is for use in batteries.  

Batteries – the main growth engine

The two main lithium battery types are:  

  • Primary (non-rechargeable): lithium batteries have a higher energy density compared to alkaline batteries, as well as low weight and a long shelf and operating life, so are used in many calculators and digital cameras.
  • Secondary (rechargeable): used for powering cell phones, laptops, other hand held electronic devices, power tools and large home or grid energy storage (Tesla Powerwall battery). The advantages of the lithium secondary battery are its higher energy density and lighter weight compared to nickel-cadmium and nickel-metal hydride batteries.  A growing application for lithium batteries is as the power source for a wide range of electric vehicles (EVs) including electric scooters, buses, taxis, trucks and cars. Cars can range from hybrid (Toyota Prius), plug-in hybrid (Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV) to fully electric (Tesla Model S, Nissan Leaf, BMW i3). Due to increasing global carbon emissions, and pollution in major cities, EVs are experiencing rapid growth in many countries. Whilst the EV revolution is already well under way, similar demand drivers are just starting to disrupt the electrical grid as we know it, via large battery storage systems such as the Tesla Powerwall. This provides a relatively cheap method of storing renewable energy at home or in localised grid storage, for times of low power generation and high consumption.

Other Chemical Applications 

Lithium chemicals are also used in a variety of other applications including: 

  • Air Treatment - absorption medium for industrial refrigeration systems and for humidity control and drying systems. 
  • Pharmaceuticals - used in the treatment for bi-polar disorder as well as in other pharmaceutical products. 
  • Lubricants – grease thickener enabling lubrication to be maintained over a large temperature range; 
  • Aluminum Smelting – reduces power consumption and fluorine emissions;
lithium in glass

 

tesla electric car

 

lithium ion battery

 

Lithium Consumption Uses

While the use of lithium in batteries currently accounts for around a third of world supply (below), this proportion has been increasing since the first commercial lithium ion batteries were produced in the 1990s, and is set to increase dramatically for many years to come.

Lithium Consumption

Source: signumBOX estimates, 2012

 

Lithium Consumption

Global battery production by type (Avicenne, 2013)

 

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