What is lithium and how is it formed?
Lithium (Li) is a light soft silver-white metal commonly found in three types of mineral deposits: brines, pegmatites (hard rock), and sediments. The contained lithia concentration is generally low and therefore only a limited number of deposits can be economically extracted1.
Types of deposits
Lithium brine deposits
Lithium brine deposits are accumulations of saline groundwater that are enriched in dissolved lithia. The word brine refers to a solution of salt (sodium-chloride) in water. Brine deposits are volcanic in origin and are often found situated in desert locations such as Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and China2.
All producing brine deposits share a number of characteristics2:
- Arid climate,
- Closed basin containing a playa or salar,
- Tectonically driven subsidence,
- Associated igneous or geothermal activity,
- Suitable lithium source-rocks,
- One or more adequate aquifers, and
- Sufficient time to concentrate a brine.
Economic brines have lithia concentrations in the range of 200 to 4,000 milligrams per litre (mg/l). Other elements in solution, such as boron and potassium, may be recovered as by-products.
In addition brines can also contain undesirable elements that create problems in processing such as magnesium or toxic elements that require care in waste disposal2.
The lithium metal produced from brines is mostly low grade but, while the capital input for brine production is high, operating costs are low3.
The process of extracting the contained lithia metal consists of the brine being pumped up to the surface and concentrated by evaporation in a succession of artificial ponds, each one in the chain having a greater lithia concentration2.
Schematic Deposit Model for Brine Deposits
Lithium hard rock deposits
Lithium hard rock deposits are commonly found in spodumene bearing pegmatite mineral deposits. Pegmatite is a common plutonic rock of variable texture and coarseness that is composed of interlocking crystals of widely different sizes. They are formed by fractional crystallisation of an incompatible element enriched granitic melt4.
Most bodies of pegmatite are tabular, podlike (cigar-shaped), or irregular in form and range in size from single crystals of feldspar to dykes (tabular bodies injected in fissures) many tens of metres thick and more than a kilometer long; many are intimately associated with masses of fine-grained aplite. Some are segregations within much larger bodies of intrusive igneous rocks, others are distributed in the rocks that surround such bodies, and still others are not recognizably associated with igneous rocks4.
Most pegmatites have a composition that is similar to granite with abundant quartz, feldspar and mica. The composition range of pegmatites is similar to that of other intrusive igneous rocks and is indicated by using a modifier, e.g., granite pegmatite or gabbro pegmatite. However, pegmatites occur most commonly in granites and the term applied alone usually refers to a granitic composition. The mineralogy of pegmatites can be simple or exotic. A simple granite pegmatite may contain only quartz, feldspar, and mica. More complex pegmatites are often zoned and can contain minerals like tourmaline, garnet, beryl, fluorite, lepidolite, spodumene, apatite, and topaz5.
World map of lithium deposits
Brine deposits are often found situated in desert locations such as Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and China. Most hard rock deposits are commonly found in Australia and Canada6.
There are three lithium minerals commercially mined today called spodumene, petalite and lepidolite of which spodumene is the most important given its higher inherent lithia content7. Typically, the mineralised rock contains approximately 12% to 20% spodumene, or approximately 1% to 1.5% lithium oxide (“Li2O”).
“Spodumene” is a lithia pyroxene found in certain rare-element pegmatites, with the formula LiAlSi2O6. It occurs as colourless to yellowish, purplish, or lilac kunzite, yellowish-green or emerald-green hiddenite, prismatic crystals, often of great size and is the principal mineral sourced from pegmatites and is the preferred source for high purity lithium products8.
“Li2O” means Lithia, or Lithium Oxide, and is the elemental metal quantity converted to its oxide (in percent (%)), which is a form of reporting used in scientific literature8. The conversion factor for Li to Li2O is 2.152.
Once extracted, the mineral ore is crushed and subjected to a number of separation processes to upgrade the lithia content by removing waste materials. Different separation processes will produce concentrate with differing levels of lithia content.
Chemical grade concentrate sold to chemical producers undergoes additional processing through the sulphate route process to convert the chemical-grade concentrate to a variety of chemicals including lithium carbonate, chloride and hydroxide.
Figure 7 shows how brine and hard rock deposits are processed.
Lithium Mineral Reserves
According to the United States Geological Survey in 2015 the world reserves of lithium exceeded 14 million tonnes with Chile accounting for 53%, China (22%), Argentina (14%), and Australia (10%). Most of the known brine reserves are located in Chile, China and Argentina, with Australia and Canada known for hosting the hard rock reserves.
Chile is the world’s most endowed country of lithium reserves. It has a reported 7.5 million tonnes in reserves, of which 6 million tonnes come from Salar de Atacama, a large salt flat located in northern Chile. The Atacama salt flat contains the world’s richest lithium-brine deposit.
China has identified 14 lithium-bearing metallogenic anomalies and recorded more than 150 occurrences of lithium. These occurrences have produced economic concentrations of lithium from both hard rock and brine type deposits. To date most economic deposits have been discovered in the provinces of Jiangxi, Sichuan, Tibet and Qinghai. The hard rock deposits mainly occur in granitic pegmatite in the Altay region of Xinjiang and the Jiajika deposit in western Sichuan Province whereas the brine type deposits have mainly been found in the provinces of Qinghai and Tibet.
Argentina is the world’s third most endowed country of lithium with reserves of more 2 million tonnes. Most of Argentina’s reserves come from Salar de Olaroz, a large salt flat located in southwest of the Province of Jujuy. Olaroz is one of the largest salt flats in the world, and contains some of the world’s richest brine deposits.
Australia has more than 1.5 million tonnes of lithium, making it the fourth most endowed country behind Argentina, China and Chile. One of the most promising locations to host hard rock deposits is Western Australia as it holds the highest economic concentrations of lithium via several hard rock deposits, notably the world-class Greenbushes Mine. Other lithium deposits have been discovered in the Pilgangoora region of the Pilbara. Most lithium exploration work has been centred surrounding these economic deposits.
Other promising locations in Australia to lithium deposits include the Broken Hill region in New South Wales, particularly the amblygonite-pegmatites near Byjerkerno, in the Euriowie tin field.
In Queensland historical geological exploration by Orion Metals Ltd (ASX: ORM) and Artemis Resources Ltd (ASX: ARV) intersected lepidolite, a pegmatite lithium-bearing rock at its Buchanan’s Creek/Grant’s Gully deposit (10m @ 1.37% Li and 8m @ 1.39% Li).
In the Northern Territory, the potential for hard rock lithium mineralisation associated with pegmatites at Pine Creek Orogen in Bynoe, NT.
In South Australia, Adelaide Resources Limited (ASX: AND) has secured the opportunity to prospect for lithium concentrations at Lake Gilles and Lake Acraman in South Australia. The two lakes are situated in the Eyre Peninsula showed potential for lithium brines and for potash and boron deposits cited by a recent published research paper.
The majority of the Portugal’s known lithium resources are located in the Goncalo aplite-pegmatite field. Other areas of the country may contain economical traces of lithium but further exploration is required to determine whether these prospects could be developed. While Portugal produced significantly less lithium than Chile, Australia and Argentina, it remains a major player in the lithium industry. Overall, the country produced 300 tonnes of lithium in 2015.
Brazil has only a few areas of lithium potential, mainly in the northern areas of Minas Gerais and Ceara. In the State of Minas Gerais near Aracuai, several pegmatites have been exploited on a sporadic basis. Most of the lithium production in Brazil comes from Arqueana de Minerious e Metais (Sao Paulo). The company mines spodumene, petalite, lepidolite, amblygonite, beryl, and cassiterite from pegmatite bodies near Aracuai in Minas Gerais. The company also supplies spodumene concentrates to Companhia Brasileira do litio (CBL), a producer of lithium carbonate and hydroxide.
The United States is home to a single lithium mine controlled by Rockwood Holdings, which was acquired by Albemarle in 2015. The brine operation is located in Nevada, and accounts for all of the country’s lithium output. The US Geological Survey does not release national production numbers to protect the company’s trade secrets.
The Bikita hard rock lithium mine is one of the largest lithium deposits in Zimbabwe. The mine is located in southern Zimbabwe in Masvingo Province and is owned by Bikita Minerals Ltd. The Bikita lithium mine has mineral reserve estimate of approximately 10.8 million tonnes with an average lithium grading of 1.4% li containing about 0.15 million tonnes of lithium. The pegmatites are thought to be derived from granite magma and are notable for their richness in exotic constituents such as lithium, beryllium, tantalum and niobium.
Canada is home mainly hard rock lithium deposits. Nemaska Lithium Inc (NMX.V) is developing its world-class spodumene lithium hard rock Whabouchi deposit located in Quebec. The mine has a mineral resource estimate of 27.99 million tonnes with an average lithium grade of 1.57%.
Other deposits include the Bernic Lake mine which is located in Manitoba. The Bernic Lake represents one of the largest tantalum reserves in Canada having estimated reserves of 2.1 million tonnes of ore grading 0.22% tantalum and 7.3 million tonnes of ore grading 2.76% lithium.
According to the United States Geological Survey lithium and its compounds have several industrial applications, including: heat-resistant glass and ceramics (35%), lithium-ion batteries (32%), grease lubricants, flux additives for iron, steel and aluminium production.
Demand for lithium
The global lithium market is growing rapidly due to developments in the technology and energy sectors, especially in the use of lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion batteries) for automotive and domestic applications. Presently two thirds of global consumption is used in ceramics, glass, polymers and alloys, however growth in the technology (smart phones and computers) and energy sectors (lithium batteries for automotive and home usage) will see consumption in Li-ion batteries overtake ceramics and glass.
World Lithium Consumption from 2000 to 2017
A Li-ion battery is a rechargeable battery where lithium ions move from the negative electrode to the positive electrode during discharge and back when charging. Li-ion batteries use an intercalated lithia compound as one electrode material, compared to the metallic lithium used in a non-rechargeable lithium battery. The electrolyte, which allows for ionic movement, and the two electrodes are the constituent components of a Li-ion battery cell.
The demand for Li-ion batteries is derived from manufacturing companies that are developing batteries for electric products and electric vehicles. Such companies are Tesla Motors, SolarCity, LG Chem, Foxconn, Boston Power, Samsung, Panasonic and the BYD Company Ltd.
The Li-ion battery market is rapidly growing as the market is known to be in short supply due to the sharp increase in demand for lithium ion batteries used in electric cars and domestic power storage systems. Storage of renewable electricity is a major international issue and domestic self-sufficiency via solar panels and lithium ion storage units has mass consumer appeal.
Tesla’s Gigafactory 1
Tesla’s ‘Gigafactory 1’ in Nevada hopes to supply Li-ion batteries for over 500,000 cars within the next two years and ramp its production rate up to 1,000,000 electric cars a year in 2020. Tesla alone will require today’s entire worldwide production of Li-ion batteries.
The Tesla Gigafactory 1 was born of necessity and will supply enough batteries to support our projected vehicle demand. Industry insiders note that long-term producers have been slow to react to the increased demand.
Continual advances in the rechargeable battery market will fuel demand for the Li-ion batteries as world demand for hybrid and electric vehicles, energy storage systems, and portable electronics continues to grow.
Rising demand for Li-ion batteries will come from the increasing incomes in emerging and developing countries as they shift to better performing batteries27.
In China the sale of all-electric and hybrid vehicles more than quadrupled between 2013 and 2014. China will continue to draw demand from the industry as it dominates the world lithium market due to the country’s massive output of goods manufactured with the metal.
China is expected to rank the world’s highest annual growth increases in lithium demand as it expands its electrical vehicle market. The other major suppliers of Li-ion batteries in the Asia Pacific region include South Korea and Japan which are also projected to see increases in market.
Salt lake lithium brine production in China is very limiting. The industry currently has an annual output of 10,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate and hydroxide. The lithium brine is mainly sourced from Qinghai Lithium Co, Ltd., Qinghai CITIC Guoan Co, Ltd., and Lanke Lithium Industry Co, Ltd. Although the production capacity in recent years has increased significantly compared to previous years, however when comparing to foreign companies such as the Chilean company SQM, American company FMC, these companies produce up to 100,000 tonnes of lithium from brines.
The lithium companies; Rong Jie Co Ltd, Zhonghe Co Ltd, Western Resources Co Ltd in 2014 did not produce any lithium due to rehabilitation, renovation, expansions and other reasons. In addition the other domestic lithium producers reduced their spodumene concentrate production. According to statistics, in the year 2015, China produced approximately 25,000 tonnes and imported 36,000 tonnes of spodumene concentrate.
Every year China imports a vast amount of spodumene concentrate, almost all of it from Talison Mining (owned by Tianqi Group). According to statistics in 2012 China imported 280,000 tonnes of spodumene concentrate. In 2013 the country reduced its imports to 250,000 citing high ore prices.
In recent years the lithium carbonate equivalent prices were on a downtrend, leading to Talison Mining facing tremendous cost pressures for its processing costs, some producers were forced to reduce their output in the second half of the year and domestic producers were actually forced to shut down. This economic downturn lead to a reduction in spodumene concentrate imports for 2013 however the imports have since recovered as China imported 330,000 tonnes of spodumene concentrate in 2014 and 360,000 tonnes in 2015.
China’s production of lithium is mainly from brine salts which is quite complex, resulting the country being dependent on importing spodumene concentrate which accounts for 66-70% of the market. It is understood, while a small number of Chinese enterprises import high concentrated brine from processing facilities abroad which accounting for about 16% of the market. However there are some companies using domestic mineral resources of lithium brine and salt production accounted for about 14 percent of the market. Chinese production of lithium salts faces long-term dependence on imported raw materials for processing.
In recent years China has become a considerably big consumer of lithium. In 2014 China’s total consumption reached 65,800 tonnes, accounting for 40% of the world lithium consumption. By 2015, the annual consumption rate of lithium increased 20% to 7.87 million tonnes. It is expected that the supply market for lithium in the second half of 2016 will be tight and remain at high levels28.
Other sources of demand
Other end uses for lithium (glass and ceramics, lubricating grease, and metallurgy) and their markets are forecasted relative for moderate gains. The lubricating grease segment will boast the best performance of these markets, spurred by the use of lithium-based greases in industrial and transportation equipment. The demand will also be strong in the smaller aluminum alloy market, where lithium is used to reduce weight and improve alloy strength. Presently the global market consumes around 200,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate per annum. Growth in the technology and energy sectors may see consumption double to over 400,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate by 2025.
In 2015 the lithium market was predominantly served by four major suppliers. According to the United States Geological Survey an estimated 32,000 tonnes was produced from Australia (41%), Chile (36%), Argentina (12%) and China (7%) exploiting hard rock deposits and brines respectively.
Lithium supply in 2015
In 2015 Chile and Argentina remained the top two lithium carbonate exporters to China. Chile and Argentina exported 8,672 tonnes and 2,300 tons of lithium carbonate respectively to China, accounting for 78.46% and 20.81% of China’s total imports.
Most of the world’s producing Lithium brine mines are often found situated in desert locations such as Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and China. Many of the worlds’ producing lithium hard rock mines are found in Australia and Canada.
For most of the 2000’s the lithium carbonate price steadily increased, however over the past 12 months the price has dramatically increased from US$7,000 to US$22,000 per tonne leading to a new boom in project acquisitions across the world as companies scramble to secure tenure across land prospective for pegmatites.
In 1998 to 2009 the average price for lithium carbonate per tonne grew to more than three times its historical benchmark of US$2,000 per tonne, peaking at around US$6,000 per tonne by the end of 2012.
After the peak, in 2013 industry undertook an adjusting period of 10 months through to October 2014 where new demand from energy vehicles increased the price for lithium carbonate and started a new rally in the latter half of 2014.
The 2015 rally corresponded to a combination of two factors being the demand for battery grade lithium carbonate caused by a demand for new energy vehicles and upstream industry bottleneck issues. Prices increased to US$8,000 per tonne.
As of July, 2016, battery grade lithium carbonate has reached to more than US$22,000 per tonne LCE.
In 2015 the price for lithium carbonate rose by 150%, the two main reasons were28:
- The demand for new energy vehicles and lithium was clear. According to Lithium Industry Association statistics, China’s domestic demand for cathode material for lithium carbonate was 45,000 tonnes in 2015, an increase of 45% over the previous year, the shortage of 11,500 tonnes, was enough to drive the lithium price up sharply.
- There was an upstream resource bottleneck. The industry had competition with different cathode materials, lithium brine industry production chains, the relative concentration of processing capacity, the supply of resources is a high degree of monopoly, so that when the demand for the outbreak, ordered the release of production capacity still can play pricing.
From 2015 to 2024, the market supply of Li-ion batteries for light vehicles is forecasted to total around $US221 billion (A$310 billion), according to Navigant Consulting. Current price predictions indicate that LCE may rise to over US$25,000 in 2016. Citigroup forecasts the price for lithium carbonate will continue to rise through to 2017 on supply availability concerns, while demand is likely to soar 64 percent by 2020 from 2015 levels25.
According to the report titled 2015-2020 China’s Lithium Mining Market Trends and Investment Prospects Assessment published by the Mining Information Network29. The price for lithium concentrate has undergone substantial growth caused by the demand for electric vehicles. In the first quarter of 2016 the industrial grade lithium carbonate prices rose to more than US$7,000 per tonne with battery grade reported to be around US$7,800 per tonne, an increase of about 20% from the 2014 price.
Recently the world’s largest Lithium brine producer in the Atacama region of northern Chile was affected by a flood disaster, the SQM plant and lithium production was suspended, a transportation blockade was enforced, leading to an increase in raw material prices.
It is estimated that, even with a conservative growth rate of 10%, the global lithium demand will reach 20 million tonnes by 2020. However, considering the electric vehicle application for explosive growth, the expected growth rate is far more than this figure. With the promotion of electric vehicles, lithium carbonate consumption will usher in a steady and long-term growth projection for increased prices following a rise in consumption for electric vehicles.
This rising demand is brought on by the fact new sources of lithium raw materials are needed and as things stand, currently there is not be enough lithium to supply the battery megafactories coming on-stream in the near future.
The short to medium term growth in the lithium market will be limited by supply constraints, with few new operations being commissioned and four producers controlling much of the market. It is clear that new sources are required to meet growing demand.