Lithium, also known as “white gold,” is in high demand today due to its ability to make electric vehicle (EV) batteries store more energy and live longer. Lithium-ion batteries are used in almost every electronic device, including EVs, and demand for battery-grade lithium is expected to grow as the EV and energy storage sectors continue to rise. Lithium is a vital component in transitioning to a low-carbon global economy, and with EVs representing 10% of total global car sales, battery makers struggle to source more lithium. In this article, we will explain how lithium is extracted and how it works to power electric devices and EVs. We will also provide important facts and figures about the lithium market and its potential.
Lithium (Li) is the lightest of all metals and belongs to the group of elements called alkali metals. It is highly reactive and has the lowest density, making it ideal for making batteries. Dubbed ‘white gold’ because of its soft, silvery-white appearance, lithium has been the key metal used in manufacturing rechargeable batteries for EVs, laptops, and mobile phones. EV carmakers prefer lithium-ion batteries as they are lightweight and can be quickly recharged. Lithium comes in two major types for use in batteries and EVs: lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide. Lithium carbonate has a wide range of industrial uses and can also be converted to lithium hydroxide, which is preferred in manufacturing higher-performing and longer-lasting EV batteries.
There are two major ways to extract lithium from the earth: conventional lithium brine extraction and ore mining. In the U.S., the substance is mined from watery, salty brines or so-called ‘salars’. So far, there is only one lithium mine in the country, found in Silver Peak in Nevada. However, more refinery plants will pop up soon as the demand for the metal soars. The bulk of today’s commercial lithium production is from suppliers that extract lithium from salars. Most of this mining happens high up in the Andes, in the Lithium Triangle – where Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia meet.
Mining lithium from brines is a time-consuming process. Salty water from underground is pumped to the surface and into a series of evaporation ponds. For a period of up to two years, the water evaporates, and the brine changes composition. Then, a slurry of lime and sodium carbonate is added to the brine to remove impurities and other unwanted elements. When lithium concentration is high enough, the brine is pumped to a recovery facility for filtration of the metal. Once the brine dries up, it leaves behind a white powder that needs more purification. After the powder undergoes its final chemical transformation, it becomes a solid metal ready for use in batteries.
Another way to produce lithium is through ore or hard rock mining. There is more lithium found in hard rocks than in salty brines. However, this process needs heavy equipment to dig out the element and is very noisy. Kings Mountain in North Carolina has some of the highest-grade lithium deposits in rocks. It once supplied most of the world’s lithium, but it stopped when it was cheaper to get lithium from brines in other parts of the country. Among the many ores containing lithium, spodumene is mostly used in commercial production. After digging out the ore, it is crushed and roasted at high temperatures. It is then cooled off, milled, and roasted again with sulfuric acid at a lower temperature. This is known as acid leaching, wherein hydrogen in the acid is replaced with lithium ions to produce lithium.
According to Tesla, they will be using innovative acid-free lithium processing in their Texas refinery. The process will use less hazardous reagents and produce usable byproducts such as sand and limestone. Same with the brine-based method, lime is used to remove the unwanted magnesium from spodumene. Then soda ash is also used to produce lithium carbonate from the filtered solution. Australia accounts for the bulk of the world’s lithium production from ore. Smaller ore mining operations are found in Brazil, Portugal, Africa, and China. Industry estimates also show that additional mines will be online in North America and Finland by 2025. This would bring more supply to the growing market for lithium-ion EV batteries.
In conclusion, lithium is a vital component in transitioning to a low-carbon global economy. Its ability to make EV batteries store more energy and live longer is crucial to the success of the EV and energy storage sectors. Lithium-ion batteries are used in almost every electronic device, and demand for battery-grade lithium is expected to grow as the EV and energy storage sectors continue to rise. The two major ways to extract lithium from the earth are conventional lithium brine extraction and ore mining. While mining lithium from brines is a time-consuming process, it is the most common method used today. Ore mining is a more expensive process but is expected to become more prevalent in the coming years. As the demand for lithium grows, more supply will be needed to keep up with the market for lithium-ion EV batteries.