Over the past few years, lithium has become one of the most in-demand non-food and non-organic commodities worldwide. It therefore comes as no surprise that this metal has been dubbed ‘white gold’ due to its high price, limited availability, and wide usage in the manufacture of expensive products ranging from batteries to high-speed train components.
The value of the lithium-ion battery market alone is expected to grow four times from US$66 billion in 2021 to US$274 billion by the end of this decade as a result of a spike in the demand for electric vehicles on the global market.
What is the role of lithium in the global economy?
While nowadays, lithium is mainly used to make rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles, laptops, digital cameras, smartphones, and other electronic devices, it also serves many other important purposes that are not widely known to the public:
- Lithium is used to make more durable and lightweight alloys when combined with other metals. These are used in many sectors including the transport industry (high-speed trains, aircrafts, etc.)
- Lithium hydroxide is a component of lubricating greases and makes these become water and oxidation-resistant
- Lithium oxide is employed in glass ceramics
- Lithium chloride has applications in air conditioning
Each year, industries across the world consume an impressive amount of more than 100,000 tons of lithium. So, where does it come from?
The major players in the lithium production industry today
Information collected and provided by the US Geological Survey shows that global lithium production registered a dramatic surge in 2022, hitting 130,000 metric tons (MT) of lithium content (this data excludes U.S. production) which is over 20,000 MT more than in 2021 (107,000 MT).
Australia, Chile and China together account for over 90% of today’s global lithium production market.
Source: Mining Technology
Five major lithium-producing countries in the world
1. Australia: 61,000 MT
In 2022 this country extracted 61,000 MT of lithium (an increase of nearly 6,000 from 55,300 MT in 2021). Western Australia houses the world’s biggest hard-rock lithium mine, the Greenbushes mine, which had a production capacity of 1.34 Mt of lithium concentrate in 2020 but this figure is expected to grow hitting approximately 2.5 Mt per year by 2027.
Based on figures from GlobalData, Australia’s output of lithium is expected to increase dramatically, hitting 116,240 MT in 2026, and this is mainly due to the expansions of mines as the demand for the metal increases.
2. Chile: 39,000 MT
Similar to Australia, Chile’s level of lithium production also showed an impressive increase – from 28,300 MT in 2021 to 39,000 MT the following year. Interestingly, Chile extracts lithium from brine deposits, whereas Australia from hard-rock mines.
* Note: Vast reservoirs in specific climates and surface areas must evaporate in order to extract lithium concentrate from brine water. This procedure could take over a year, whereas hard-rock lithium is easier to discover, mine and process utilizing non-ore specific, low-cost mining techniques.
Chile is part of the so-called Lithium Triangle which also includes Bolivia and Argentina. Several large salt pans are located along the Atacama Desert and nearby arid regions. These include Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, Chile’s Salar de Atacama, and Salar del Hombre Muerto in Argentina.
SQM and Albemarle are the nation’s largest lithium-producing enterprises, but that might soon change after Chile shocked the market in April 2023 by declaring its intention to nationalize its lithium sector.
3. China: 19,000 MT
This Asian nation’s lithium supply showed a slight increase from 14,000 MT extracted in 2021 to 19,000 MT the following year. China is the world’s largest user of lithium, although it has somewhat lower levels of output than Australia and Chile. This is mainly a result of its electronic and electric vehicle manufacturing industries.
China is also responsible for the production of around 75% of all lithium-ion batteries used worldwide. Moreover, the country is home to the vast bulk of the world’s facilities for processing lithium. While it currently imports a sizable portion of its lithium from Australia, one of its objectives is to greatly increase domestic output of this metal.
4. Argentina: 6,200 MT
This nation witnessed a staggering increase of 234% in its lithium exports last year and hit a 10-year high production of 6,200 MT.
Argentina’s Salar del Hombre Muerto area has huge lithium brine deposits that will last no less than 75 years. So far, there are no indications that Argentina’s lithium mining will slow down. There are currently two mines in operation, and many other projects are in the development stage.
5. Brazil: 2,200 MT
Brazil’s lithium output has surged over the past few years despite the fact that between 2011 and 2018, it only produced around 400 MT. In 2019 the production levels showed a staggering increase, hitting 2,400 MT. Then came COVID-19 and production fell to 1,700 MT but 2022 saw a recovery when Brazil’s production reached 2,200 MT.
The Brazilian government plans to invest US$2.8 billion to increase the country’s lithium extraction capacity by the end of the decade.
How is lithium produced?
Does lithium open the door to an eco-friendlier future? (Spoiler: not really)
Resource exploitation of any kind is bad for the environment since it can lead to soil degradation, water shortages, ecosystem damage, and biodiversity loss.
Here are some of the impacts that lithium mining brings:
- Large-scale water consumption and associated pollution (to create one ton of lithium, about 2.2 million liters of water are required)
- Rise in carbon dioxide emissions due to extraction techniques
- Substantial increase in the generation of mineral waste
- Greater respiratory issues for surrounding communities
- Alteration of the hydrological cycle (when evaporation and precipitation are affected)
Studies conducted by the automotive consultant Berylls Strategy Advisors showed that the production of each battery (which may weigh up to 500 kilograms) for sport-utility cars generates up to 74% more carbon dioxide than the manufacture of a conventional vehicle if it is made in a fossil fuel-powered factory in a country like Germany.
Is there anything we can do?
Making investments in lithium battery alternatives is one way to solve the problem. Experts advise looking out for the so-called solid-state batteries as well as sodium-ion batteries. At the end of 2022, the Chinese battery producer CATL announced plans to start mass production of sodium-ion batteries.
In addition, by the end of 2023, CATL and Chinese car manufacturer BYD look forward to using sodium-ion batteries in electric vehicles. However, these will initially be powered by a combination of lithium-ion and sodium-ion batteries.
Other steps that can be taken include:
- Recycling and investing in cutting-edge mining techniques for lithium extraction can reduce water and energy consumption as well as cut the amount of waste produced by mining
- Extending the battery lifespan can reduce the amount of lithium mined
- This can be complemented by the establishment of rigorous environmental laws and guidelines for lithium mining operations
With few to no alternatives expected in the foreseeable future, lithium remains the main ingredient used to make batteries for electric vehicles (EVs). Around 90% of all lithium today is extracted in Australia, China, and a few countries in Latin America, and production levels are steadily increasing along with the demand for EVs.
At the same time, lithium mining degrades soil and requires an excessive amount of water, seriously harming ecosystems. There are several steps that can be taken to address the problem, such as looking for alternatives to or extending the life of lithium-based batteries, and making investments in technology that could reduce the amount of power and water used during mining.