Introduction to Lithium

Lithium Periodic Facts

Atomic Number: 3

Symbol: Li

Name: Derived from the Greek word ‘lithios’ meaning stone

Basic Introduction to Lithium

Lithium was discovered in 1817 by Johan August Arfvedson. It was discovered from a mineral, while other common alkali metals were discovered from plant material. This is thought to explain the origin of the element’s name; from ‘lithos’ (Greek for ‘stone’).

Lithium appears as a soft, silvery metal. It has the lowest density of all metals. It reacts vigorously with water.

Lithium has a variety of uses with the most important use of lithium found in rechargeable batteries for many consumer electronic devices such as mobile phones, laptops, digital cameras and electric vehicles.

Lithium metal has industrial applications and can be made into alloys with aluminium and magnesium.


  • improves their strength
  • makes them lighter

Magnesium-lithium alloy uses:

  • Armour plating
  • Aircraft
  • Bicycle frames
  • High-speed trains

Aluminium-lithium alloy uses:

Lithium oxide uses:

  • special glasses and glass ceramics.
  • air conditioning
  • industrial drying systems (as is lithium bromide).

Lithium chloride (is one of the most hygroscopic materials known) uses:

Lithium stearate uses:

  • all-purpose and high-temperature lubricant.
  • drugs to treat manic depression, although its action on the brain is still not fully understood.
  • means of storing hydrogen for use as a fuel.

Lithium carbonate uses:

Lithium hydride uses:

Video of Lithium reactivity -

Where is Lithium found and who are the top producing Lithium Countries?

Lithium does not occur as the metal in nature, but is found combined in small amounts in nearly all igneous rocks and in the waters of many mineral springs. Spodumene, petalite, lepidolite, and amblygonite are the more important minerals containing lithium. The metal is produced by the electrolysis of molten lithium chloride and potassium chloride.

As a whole, the Earth's crust contains approximately 20 parts per million of lithium, and the oceans contain 0.17 parts per million; the atmosphere contains only trace amounts.

Lithium is highly reactive: lithium is highly flammable, and will even react spontaneously with water. (This high reactivity is why some lithium-ion batteries ignite or explode when exposed to high temperatures.) Instead, lithium is usually extracted from lithium minerals that can be found in igneous rocks (chiefly spodumene) and from lithium chloride salts that can be found in brine pools.

Currently the top producing Lithium countries are as follows (2015):

  • Australia: 14,300 Million Tonnes (MT)
  • Chile: 12,000 MT
  • Argentina: 5,700 MT
  • China: 2,000 MT
  • Zimbabwe: 900 MT

Currently the top Lithium reserve countries are as follows (2017):

  • Chile: 7,500,000 MT
  • China: 3,200,000 MT
  • Argentina: 2,000,000 MT
  • Australia: 1,600,000 MT
  • Other noteable countries (Combined: 169,000 MT)
    • Portugal
    • Brazil
    • United States
    • Zimbabwe

Other noteable countries to mention: Bolivia – Hosts an enormous lithium deposit in Bolivia at the Uyuni Salt Flat (the world's largest salt flat). This massive resource remains untapped due to political and economic reasons.

Extracting lithium from brine is currently cheaper than mining it from spodumene, so there are many deposits of spodumene that are not currently being mined. Lithium is also present in seawater, but the concentration is too low to be economic.

Lithium Demand

While typical applications provide consistent demand, the biggest and fasted growing demand driver for lithium is the battery market.

Currently the largest demand drivers for lithium- ion batteries are:

  • Hybrid Electirc Vehicles
  • Plugin Hybrid Electric Vehicles
  • Battery Electric Vehicles
  • Consumer Electronics

Electirc Vehicles:

In 2015, approximately 500,000 cars sold in the United States had an electronic drive component (Only accounting for 1% of total Car sales in the US)

  • 77% Hybrids
  • 9% Plug-in
  • 14% Battery Electric

By 2040 it is estimated that 35% of all global sales will be Battery Electic Vehicles. Goldman Sachs estimates that a Tesla Model S with 70kWh battery uses 63 kilograms of lithium carbonate equivialent. For every 1% increase in battery electric vehicle market penetration, there is an increase in lithium demand by approx. 70,000 tonnes LCE/year.

Rechargeable Battery Market:

The estimated size of the rechargeable battery market in 2014 was US$49 Billion with the Lithium- ion battery accounting for 33.4% of that value. It is estimated that by 2025 the rechargeable batter market with be US$112 Billion wht Lithium-ion accounting for 70% of that value.

The Future for the lithium market also includes power storage by way of the “Smart Grid” which are said to be the future of power distribution in cities. The Smart Grid uses computers to improve efficiency and flexibility of power distribution:

  • Global Sales in 2012: $72 Million
  • Estimated global sales in 2020: $5.98 billion
What is the price for Lithium and Where do I find it?

Lithium pricing can range from SPOT and contract pricing.

Lithium SPOT pricing can be found here:

Lithium contract pricing ranges depending on the agreement between the producer and the purchaser.

Historically, what was the price for Lithium?

Comparing Lithium Brine Vs. Hard Rock Exploration

Lithium Brine Deposits:

  • Brine deposits are found in salt flats- areas are typically flate, arid, and relatively barren: Areas such as (but not limited to)
    • Argentina
    • Bolivia
    • Chile
  • Typically consentrated in high levels
  • 66% of the global lithium reserves are found in salts flats (brine reserves)
  • Brine deposits are found at or below surface, as water evaporates the mineral is consentrated in the water
  • Exploration cost range: $1-2 million (1-2 year exploration time frame)
  • Development and Advanced Exploration cost range: $2 million
    (Time frame 1.5 years)
  • Development Cost range: $10 Million (2 Years development time frame)
  • CAPEX Cost range: $150 - $300 million
  • Benefits of Brine deposits
    • Easier to explore
    • Faster top put into production
    • Less capital required
    • Fewer topographical challenges due to flat areas
    • Simplified exploration and drilling methods
    • Generally deposits are not very deep
  • Risks of Brine deposits
    • Areas can be remote and lack infrastructure – Making it hard to economically produce and deliver lithium consentrate
    • Slower production of concentrate for sale and distribution

Hard rock exploration:

  • Typically uneven topographical areas with varying weather events
  • Exploration cost range: $1-15 million (1 to 3 year time frame)
  • Development and Advacnced Exploration Cost range: $15-30 Million
    (time frame 2-3 years)
  • Development Cost range: $40 Million (4 years development time frame)
  • CAPEX Cost range: $250 million to $2 billion
  • Benefits:
    • Can be found in many different places
    • High lithium prices make projects economic
    • Shorter production time for sale and shipment of concentrate
  • Risks
    • Topigraphical issues
    • Areas can be remote and lack infrastructure
    • Deposits can be deep
    • Drilling and exploration can be complex
    • Expensive exploration to development costs



[1] J. Emsley, Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements (Oxford University Press, 2002).