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 –

Cost of Battery Grade Lithium Increases 20%

In an article titled Battery Grade Lithium I highlighted the only US manufacturer of Lithium (Chemtell). It gives a backdrop to a very important metal that we all use in some form or another. Recently on 6-16-2011 Chemtell announced a 20% increase in prices (effective July 1, 2011) for its lithium salts, including lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide, lithium chloride, and increases on battery grade lithium metal.

Battery grade lithium metal is the material that is used in batteries and over the past 7 years about 2.4 billion batteries have been in use and are utilizing approximately 35 million pounds of battery grade lithium.

Standard battery grade lithium is a lithium carbonate manufactured for solid ion conductors and monocrystals used in the electronics industry. Such carbonate is a source of a raw material for the production of cathode material used in lithium ion batteries (lithium cobalt oxide, lithium manganese oxide). In terms of its chemical composition standard battery grade lithium, or Lithium bis-(oxalato) borate – LiBOB. LiBOB is a conductive agent for the use in high performance lithium (Li) batteries and lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries and lithium polymer (Li-po) batteries.

Battery grade lithium metals are sold to a wide assortment of manufacturers by the kilogram as ingots. A lithium ingot is often times a cylindrical roll of lithium that weighs about 11 pounds on average. Special order ingots of course can be requested thereby changing the average weight. Lithium ingots are made from technical grade lithium carbonate which is a byproduct of lithium and a solution of lithium hydroxide. The conversion of lithium in the lithium hydroxide solution results in lithium carbonate as a fine white powder. This powder is placed into a billet container prior to being processed through the extrusion. The extruded billet may be solid or hollow in form, commonly cylindrical, used as the final length of material charged into the extrusion press cylinder. It is usually a cast product, but may be a wrought product or sintered from powder compact. This billet of lithium carbonate is the ingot.

Battery manufacturers take the typically shaped ingot and stretch it into a thin sheet of metal that is only 1/100th of an inch thick and 650 feet in length. A laminator furthers the process by stretching the 655 foot lithium roll to about 1.25 miles of lithium used to make 210 lithium batteries. The battery cell is then tested to measure 3.6V. Volts (volts are an electrical measure of energy potential – you can think of it as the pressure being exerted by all the electrons of a battery’s negative terminal as they try to move to the positive terminal)

In terms of pricing in 1998 the price of lithium was $43.33 per pound. In April of 2009 the average price per pound was $28.57. In May of 2010 the average price of lithium per pound was $28.24 and currently the average price per pound of lithium is increasing to around $35.86. As noted above a typical ingot weighs in at about 11 pounds (total metal value is about $394.46 per ingot – note this is not the complete costs that manufacturers pay for a single ingot).

Until next time, Dan Hagopian –