Easing India’s Reliance on Lithium Greases

GUWAHATI, India - Indian grease manufacturers, like their counterparts in other countries, have for the past couple years bemoaned sharp increases in the costs of lithium, the chemical used to thicken most of the worlds greases. A speaker at an industry conference in Guwahati, India, last month advised companies to consider using aluminum complex grease instead in certain applications.

Lithium- and lithium complex-based greases dominate Indias market, and this can bring supply and price risk in case of lithium shortage, Bela Toth, lubricant export sales manager at Hungary-based MOL-Lub Ltd, said at the annual meeting of the Indian chapter of the National Lubricating Grease Institute.

Photo courtesy of MOL-LUB Ltd.

A selection of greases. The Indian grease manufacturers should consider aluminum complex grease as an alternative option to lithium and lithium complex greases in selected areas because the shortage of lithium could cause a vulnerable supply and price scenarios.

Lithium has several uses, but the biggest and fastest growing demand comes from makers of lithium-ion batteries for smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles. In recent years, a buying frenzy for lithium has occurred as battery makers in theUnited States, Europe and China vie to secure direct contracted supplies for the natural resource.

Electric cars are popping [up] everywhere, and theres massive investments into the auto industry. It is eating up pretty much all the lithium sources around the globe, Toth told attendees.

He warned that lithiums market price could rise still higher as electric vehicle sales continue to shoot up. The potential shortage - coupled with higher lithium prices and the high dependence on single-type grease usage - could cause a vulnerable supply scenario, Toth cautioned.

According to U.S.-based NLGIs latest survey, lithium and lithium complex greases accounted for 84 percent of Indias grease production in 2017. The share of aluminum complex grease in the market was less than a tenth of a percent.

In contrast, aluminum complex grease accounted for 3 percent of total global grease production. Toth said this 3 percent figure for aluminum complex grease is an average and belies regional variations. Seven percent of greases in North America use aluminum complex thickeners, around 5 percent each in Europe, Southeast Asia and Pacific nations during the survey period.

He said aluminum complex grease could bring performance benefits in selected performance areas, including a high dropping point, excellent water resistance, good shear stability, very good oxidation stability, excellent pumpability, chemical resistance, non-toxicity and heat reversibility.

Applications where both water resistance and heat reversibility are important could include the steel, paper and automotive industries, as well as construction machinery and trailers, Toth said.

Vijay Deshmukh, general manager of research and development at Mumbai-based Standard Greases & Specialities Pvt. Ltd., said the properties of aluminum complex grease are better than lithium and comparable to lithium complex. These greases can also be used as food-grade lubricants, unlike lithium or lithium complex greases, he added.

However, aluminum complex grease has not been established in the Indian market and hence, its share is very low compared to lithium or lithium complex greases, Deshmukh said.

There is not much growth in aluminum complex greases in India, but in case the price of lithium hydroxide increases, aluminum complex grease can replace lithium complex greases in some of the applications, and their share may increase, he told Lube Report. Lithium hydroxide is a key raw material for making greases thickened with lithium-based soaps.

Toth said the share of aluminum complex grease in Indias total output remains low, but theres ample opportunity for local manufacturers as the thickener. Reaching the average global market share of 3 percent would mean aluminum complex greases reaching sales of 2,400 tons in India.

This is quite a big volume and could bring good value and money to your companies, Toth told attendees at the conference.