Lithium – Who Uses It – and Lithium Uses

On June 16, 2011 Chemtell announced that there will be a 20% price increase for its lithium salts, including lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide, lithium chloride, and increases on battery grade lithium metal. This price increase caused a concern for those buyers of lithium in terms of how the price increase will play out with their customers and ultimately their business. But who buys lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide, lithium chloride, and battery grade lithium metal? To understand the market segment for lithium we need to understand where lithium comes from, where it is used and why it is used.

Lithium was first discovered through a chain of events and a number of scientists. Near the end of the 18th century the mineral petalite was discovered by the Brazilian scientist José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva. Then in 1817 Johan August Arfvedson, while conducting an analysis of petalite ore, Arfvedson discovered lithium in the minerals spodumene and lepidolite. Then C.G. Gmelin observed in 1818 that lithium salts produce flames that are bright red yet neither Gmelin nor Arfvedson were able to isolate the element itself from lithium salts. A few years later the lithium was isolated by W.T. Brande and Sir Humphrey Davy by the electrolysis of lithium oxide and then in 1855, Bunsen and Mattiessen isolated large quantities of the metal by the electrolysis of lithium chloride.

Lithium does not naturally occur as a free metal, and thankfully so, due to its high reactivity. Thus lithium being a compound of must be extracted and processed before it can be put into use. Lithium is naturally found in the universe, sun, meteorites, crustal rocks, sea water, streams, and humans (a 200 lb man has 0.0027% of lithium in his body). Large lithium deposits are known all around the world and are most notably found in spodumene, lepidolite, petalite, and amblygonite.

Lithium being a metal with the highest specific heat of any solid element is used frequently in heat transfer applications. Lithium is used in various nuclear applications, as a battery anode material (high electrochemical potential) and lithium compounds are used in dry cells and storage batteries. Lithium is also used in the manufacturing of high strength glasses and ceramics, and lithium carbonate is also used as drug to treat manic-depressive disorders. Lithium stearate is mixed with oils to make all-purpose and high-temperature lubricants. Lithium hydroxide is used to absorb carbon dioxide in space vehicles. Lithium is alloyed with aluminum, copper, manganese, and cadmium to make high performance alloys for aircraft. Lithium is used a component for railroad car bearings, and lithium is also used as part of a reagent compound.

In what type of applications is lithium being used today? When we look at the broad spectrum of how and where lithium is used we find that lithium compounds are used in the production, processing and manufacturing of:

  • glass, ceramics, and aluminum (in fact 50% of all lithium is used for this purpose);
  • batteries;
  • pharmaceuticals;
  • air treatment;
  • continuous casting;
  • lubricants and greases;
  • rubber and thermoplastics;
  • rocket propellants;
  • vitamin A synthesis;
  • underwater buoyancy devices;
  • to form strong, light-weight alloys (an alloy is a mixture of metals)
  • as medicine to treat gout (an inflammation of joints) and to treat serious mental illness (bi-polar and manic-depressive disorders );
  • railroad car bearings;
  • and as a reagent compound

This is just a sample of the uses lithium is sought after acquired for and when you factor in the wide variety of uses you will begin to see that many end users of lithium exist. Governments, corporations, scientists, and educational institutes use and require lithium.

Until next time, Dan Hagopian –