Lithium Thickeners Dip in Europe


Lithium Thickeners Dip in Europe
Green grease used in industrial applications. © aumkabaum

The portion of greases made with lithium thickeners continued to decline in Europe in 2023, according to the latest survey by the National Lubricating Grease Institute, in line with a global trend since electric vehicles spurred a run-up in costs for the chemical.

Greases made with conventional lithium soap thickeners or complex lithium soap thickeners accounted for 67% of total production in Europe last year, according to the NLGI 2023 Annual Production Survey, released last week. That was down from 70% in 2021.

Lithium’s decline has been much slower in Europe than for the global grease industry, and European producers still lean much more on the chemical. According to the comparative data section of the survey, the portion of greases made with lithium thickeners worldwide fell to 58% in 2023, down from 62% in 2022 and 70% in 2020.

Until the past few years, grease was one of the main uses of lithium, along with glass manufacturing and lithium-ion batteries. Now the largest share of the chemical goes to electric vehicles, sales of which shot up the past several years. Most plug-in hybrids and models running solely on battery use lithium-ion batteries.

As lithium suppliers struggled to keep up with demand, costs skyrocketed. European prices for lithium hydroxide jumped from under U.S. $10,000 per metric ton at the start of 2021 to around $70,000/t by the second quarter of 2022, pushing many grease producers to try alternative types of thickeners. Since that peak, lithium hydroxide prices have plummeted, as producers around the world raced to expand production. In the first quarter of this year, the European price sank below $14,000/t.

In Europe, it is specifically conventional lithium soap thickeners that have been losing ground, being used in 49% of the region’s overall grease production in 2023, down from 52% in 2021. The portion of output using complex lithium thickeners remained 18% during that time.

The types of thickeners replacing lithium has varied between regions. In Europe the slack has been taken up by calcium thickeners, which were used in 15% of production back in 2021 but accounted for 18% last year. Hydrated and anhydrous varieties, calcium sulfonate and complex calcium all accounted for small shares of that gain.

In North America, use of calcium thickeners declined slightly, and aluminum soaps and polyurea were the main choices to replace lithium, according to the survey. The global market has shifted more strongly to calcium than the European market; calcium varieties were used to thicken 24% of all grease production in 2023, up from 16% in 2021. Worldwide use of polyurea rose from 7% to 10% over the same period.

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