Will Lithium Run Out?


KIEV, Ukraine – The global grease industry can breathe easy. Despite soaring demand for lithium in batteries, there is ample lithium for future use by both the grease and automotive industries, Chemetall contends.

The grease industry, a major user of lithium hydroxide in grease thickening systems, has watched with some concern as lithium-ion batteries consume growing volumes of the metal. Is there enough? This is the big question, Wolfgang Bos, global business manager for Chemetall Lithium, told the European Lubricating Grease Institute Annual General meeting here on Oct. 25.

Bos, who is based in Frankfurt, Germany, claimed that current estimates of worldwide lithium reserves total about 35 million tons of lithium, or 185 million tons of lithium carbonate. And current worldwide demand is about 19,000 tons of lithium, or 100,000 tons of lithium carbonate. So there is enough lithium for 500 or a thousand years.

World consumption of lithium grew from 80,000 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) in 2000 to 120,000 tons of LCE in 2008, Bos said. But the global downturn slashed demand to 100,000 tons in 2009. Batteries, however, were one of the few end-uses that did not drop, he noted. In 2010, demand is expected to grow again to about 110,000 to 120,000 tons of LCE.

While ceramics and glass continue to consume the greatest share of lithium (31 percent), by 2009 batteries consumed 23 percent. Greases are the third-largest end use, at 9 percent. In tons, thats 9,000 to 10,000 tons of lithium hydroxide, Bos noted. Additional applications include aluminum, air treatment, continuous casting, rubber and thermoplastics, and many other uses.

Many of the suppliers to the grease industry, including Chemetall, SQM and FMC, produce lithium carbonate from brines in Argentina and Chile. Lithium carbonate is converted further to produce lithium hydroxide. Bos noted that spodumene, a lithium-containing ore, is mined in Australia and China, and will soon be mined in Canada.

Looking forward, Bos said that lithium consumption is expected to increase to about 150,000 tons of LCE in 2013, reflecting growth in all the key end-user segments.

The big question is how much lithium will be needed to satisfy the requirements of electric vehicle batteries. Chemetall has looked at several scenarios, said Bos, focusing on the prospects of 5 percent penetration and 10 percent penetration. That is, they looked at lithium demand if 5 percent of total vehicles have some form of battery power assist, and if 10 percent do, over the next 10 years.

The result is that, for electric vehicles alone, 60,000 tons of LCE are needed by 2020 if 5 percent of vehicles have batteries, and double that amount, 120,000 tons of LCE, are needed if 10 percent do.

This means, said Bos, that new lithium capacity equal to total existing worldwide capacity will be needed by 2020 under the most conservative projection. The worlds lithium reserves are ready to meet that demand, Bos concluded, citing huge reserves from continental brine in South America and China, and from silicate ore in the U.S., Africa, Central Europe, Central Asia and China.

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