Lithium: More than Just Batteries

Properties

Lithium (Li) is an alkali metal element with atomic number 3 and atomic weight of 6.94. Lithium metal is produced through the electrolysis of fused lithium chloride, which results in a soft silvery-white lustrous metal. The metal is so soft that it can be cut easily with a knife. Lithium is the least reactive of all the alkali metals, but is still highly reactive, thus it must be stored under liquid paraffin, which contains no oxygen, to prevent oxidation. Lithium is highly reactive when in contact with water, forming hydrogen gas and lithium hydroxide (LiOH) in an aqueous solution. When in contact with air, the lithium metal is also highly reactive, forming a layer of lithium hydroxide.

Applications

Lithium is widely known for its applications in energy storage for consumer electronics and large-scale energy grids, but many lesser-known applications make lithium an even more versatile mineral:

Glass

Lithium minerals (often spodumene) are used in the production of glass products such as containers, bottles, fiberglass, glass for pharmaceutical applications, shock-resistant cookware, sealed-beam headlights and many more. Benefits of lithium in glass production:

  • Reduces viscosity and melting temperature
  • Less energy consumption (because of lower melting temperatures)
  • Increased life and productivity of glass furnaces without sacrificing glass quality
  • Improved strength of glass
  • Improved thermal shock resistance of finished products
  • Reduced rejection rates and increased quality by reducing the amount of "bubbles"
Ceramics

Lithium minerals are used in ceramics to produce fritz and glazes, porcelain enamels for bathroom fixtures, shock-resistant ceramics and porcelain tiles. Benefits of lithium in glass production:

  • Decreases the melting temperature of ceramics by increasing fluxing power
  • Decreases thermal expansion co-efficient, increasing shock resistance
  • Decreases pyroplastic deformation
  • Improves glaze adherence, gloss properties and stain resistance
  • Improved resistance to sudden temperature changes
Lubricant Grease

Lithium greases make excellent lubricants as they adhere particularly well to metal, are highly water soluble and offer consistent properties over a range of temperatures. Lithium containing greases have been in existence since the 1940s and were perhaps the first large-scale commercial application of lithium compounds. Lithium grease is commonly used as lubricant in household products and in a number of demanding service applications in the automotive, military and aerospace industries, and accounts for about 65% of the lubricant market

Metallurgy
  • Lithium compounds reduce the flux melting temperature and surface tension of steel alloys
  • Lithium compounds degasify and clean metals, including aluminum, copper and bronze
  • Lithium carbonate is used in the aluminum industry
    • 1.5–4% kilograms of Li2CO3 per tonne of aluminum produced, during metal processing
    • Lithium lowers the melting temperature of the molten electrolyte and increases the cell's electrical conductivity
    • Decreases processing costs, particularly energy costs
    • Can be used to produce an aluminum/lithium alloy, increasing stiffness up to 7%, increasing strength up to 30%, and reducing weight about 5%
Other Applications

Lithium has many more applications, such as:

  • Lithium Metal
  • Air Conditioners
  • Optics
  • Organic and Polymer Chemistry
  • Military
  • Nuclear
  • Medicine

Lithium Supply and Demand

Demand for lithium grew at an average of 7.2%/year from 2001 to 2008 and picked up again in 2010. Annual demand is expected to rise significantly as a result of increased usage of lithium in battery technologies.

In 2018, the total demand for lithium is expected to reach 252,653 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent. Increase in battery demand will be a strong driver of lithium consumption in the near future but producers are currently limited in their ability to match demands. (Source)

Sources:
Statistica - Projection of total worldwide lithium demand from 2015 to 2025
Euro Pacific Canada Lithium Report