Lithium is set to become the latest in a long line of minerals to be extracted from Cornish ground in a tradition dating back thousands of years, as Cornish Lithium announced recently that it “plans to explore for, and to potentially develop, lithium contained in underground hot spring brines in Cornwall.” This is the third of a three part blog, exploring the recent global upsurge in the demand for lithium which may make this an economically viable project, and some of the drivers behind it. Part 1 of the blog explored the occurrence of lithium in Cornwall, and Part 2 focused on global sources of lithium, and the main methods of extraction used.
In 2015, the USGS published estimated figures for the global uses of lithium. The major uses listed were batteries (35%) and ceramics and glass (32%); the third biggest consumption of lithium was for use in lubricating greases (9%). Other uses of lithium include high performance aircraft materials and anti-depression drugs.
Data from : https://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/lithium/mcs-2016-lithi.pdf
Graph: GeoScience Limited
Lithium is very light, the lightest of all metals and the least dense solid element. It is also a good conductor of electricity; it has the greatest electrochemical potential of all metals and provides the largest specific energy per weight. These attributes make Lithium ideal for portable rechargeable energy storage (batteries), such as are used in electric cars and digital and electronic devices such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones.
Lithium is a highly reactive, flammable, unstable metal. This instability, has led to the use of more stable lithium compounds in so-called lithium ion batteries. Lithium ion batteries are a rapidly growing market as technologies improve and prices drop. Uses for rechargeable lithium ion batteries include: as an emergency power backup for critical equipment and systems, to provide vehicle power (such as electric cars), for renewable energy storage such as solar or wind power, and providing power to remote locations. Of these, electric vehicles are seen as the largest area of growth, with Goldman Sachs mooting lithium ion batteries as “the new gasoline” which will enable an electric car revolution.
Video via YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkMN8CN9OBY
In 2016, global plug-in passenger car sales to September were 53% higher than for the same period in 2015. China is the world’s largest plug in market: 43% of all passenger cars sold in the first 9 months of 2016 were plug-ins (source: www.ev-volumes.com). In Europe, Norway and the Netherlands are both early adopters, and they aim to phase out all fossil-fuel cars by 2025. A new draft EU directive revealed in October aims to ensure that every new or refurbished house in Europe has a charging point. To meet this increasing demand, the mass production of lithium ion batteries is necessary.
According to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a company specialising in the lithium ion battery supply chain, At least twelve lithium ion battery “megafactories” are due to come online by 2020. Probably the best known of these is electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla Motors’ $5billion Gigafactory in the Nevada desert. When completed, it will be up to 10 million square feet in size, making it one of the largest buildings in the world. At the start of January it announced that it had begun mass production of lithium ion battery cells.
Image source: https://www.tesla.com/en_GB/gigafactory
An ever increasing demand for lithium ion batteries means an ever increasing demand for lithium. The British government has defined lithium as a metal of strategic importance to the country. Lithium is an immature market that is not exchange traded. The graph below from Benchmark Minerals illustrates how the price of lithium has rocketed over the last couple of years as demand has increased.
Via Benchmark Mineral Intelligence
Image source: http://benchmarkminerals.com/a-year-in-review-2016/
Cornish Lithium are looking at a time frame of approximately five years to production. The same time frame as Hoshino is looking at to commercialise his production of lithium from seawater. It is unlikely that any new battery technology would be developed to commercial stage in that time, so it is expected that the demand for lithium will still be high. The race will be on with those looking to extract lithium from other sources, and with constantly improving technologies in this emerging market, it is one to watch with interest.