Lithium is the lightest metal and has a number of useful technology driven properties, including:
- Imparts thermal shock resistance to glasses (eg, Corning Ware, Pyrex), also used in fiberglass, ceramics, glazes etc.
- Rechargeable, high electrical storage capacity batteries;
- Lubricants for high temperature applications;
- Aluminum processing (Li2CO3) as a reducing agent in smelting);
- Light weight lithium-aluminum and lithium-magnesium alloys for aerospace applications;
- Other uses include pharmaceuticals, fuel cells; catalysts;
- Potential futures uses include as a fuel in nuclear fusion reactors - a game changer for the energy industry.
Lithium areas of usage (from Roskill Information Services):
Lithium is sourced from 2 primary feed stocks:
- these account or the bulk of current lithium production, with Chile being the biggest producer. Brines are problematical due to magnesium contamination, especially if Mg/Li is greater than 10 - over time Mg can become increasing concentrated in brines, making Li recovery difficult.
- traditionally spodumene (LiAlSi2O6) from pegmatites has been the feedstock used to produce lithium carbonate (Li2CO3). Pegmatites tend to be small, narrow bodies that can be expensive to mine.
- More recently hectorite - a lithium-rich clay (NaO,3(Mg,Li)3Si4O10(OH)2) - has become the focus for new lithium resource development, primarily because patents covering lithium recovery from hectorite have expired providing a new opportunity for those with hectorite resources. Bacanora's lithium project is focused on developing hectorite deposits formed in young desert playas that can be mined using low-cost bulk-mining techniques.
Because of lithium's very chemically reactive nature, the main commercial lithium product is lithium carbonate. Lithium carbonate is stable and can be converted into other lithium compounds relatively easily. Lithium sales are typically conducted on negotiated contracts between producers and consumers. Pricing is therefore not always known to the public. However, the U.S. Bureau of Mines and Roskill provide guidance on lithium prices. Currently, lithium carbonate sells for around $US6,000/tonne. The strong demand for lithium use in rechargeable batteries for electric and hybrid electric vehicles is expected to place upward pressure on lithium prices in the near-term.