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What is Lithium And Where Do I Use It?


  • Lithium is a silver-white to grey metal belonging to the alkali metal group. With a density of only 0.53 g/cm3, lithium is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element at room temperature. Also, lithium has excellent electrical conductivity and the highest electrochemical potential of all metals. 


  • Lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide are the principal lithium compound products for cathode material production used in non-rechargeable and rechargeable batteries. 

  • Hydrometallurgical recycling methods of end-of-life Li-ion batteries enable recovery of lithium as a lithium carbonate precipitate.


Where is Lithium Produced?


  • From 2010 to 2020, the global production of lithium raised from 28,100 tonnes to 95,000 tonnes lithium carbonate equivalent or “LCE” (Statista 2021). Same level of information can be obtained from World Mining Data with a production in Li2O content increasing from 52,000 tonnes in 2008 to about 200,000 tonnes in ß .


  • Rechargeable batteries used by electric vehicles (EVs)  are forecast to become a major source of secondary (recycled) lithium, but it is still a small percentage of total supply in 2021 due to historically low numbers of electric vehicles and the rapid growth in primary production. Cobalt and nickel remain the two target metals and the main value carriers though the recycling process.


What is the global market for Lithium?


  • The lithium market size was estimated at 82 ktonnes in 2020 (USGS, 2021), with the lithium carbonate product segment dominating the market for the largest share of over 58% in 2020 in terms of volume (Grand View Research, 2021). 


  • The rapidly growing demand for lithium is driven by a strong growth rate in the demand for rechargeable Li-ion batteries used in EVs.

Technical applications include:


  • The technical applications of lithium are grouped in two categories: glass and ceramics covering about 66% and others including lubricating grease, cement production.

Chemical applications include:


  • In non-rechargeable (or primary batteries) batteries, metallic lithium is used for the anode.  Primary lithium batteries are employed in various household applications (e.g. calculators, cameras and watches) and medical devices (e.g. heart pacemakers).


  • In rechargeable batteries, lithium is present in the electrolyte and the cathode of lithium-ion rechargeablebatteries. The advantages of lithium-ion batteries compared to other battery types are outstanding energy and power density as well as long lifetime, low weight and cycle life. 


  • Li-ion batteries are applied in a range of end-uses, while new applications still emerge. The largest market in 2015 was the portable electronic devices such as mobile phones, laptops, tablets, digital cameras, etc., corresponding to 65% of total Li demand for batteries (M Schmidt 2017). Since then, the emerging electronic vehicles sector has taken over as the largest market for lithium-ion batteries, in particular for full-battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), but also other forms of electric transportation such as bikes. Furthermore, Li-ion batteries have found use incordless heavy-duty power tools and medical devices (e.g. hearing aids). Finally, Li-on batteries have the potential to be utilised in off-grid and grid-connected energy storage systems.


  • Additive to multi-purpose, high-performance lubricants. Lithium hydroxide monohydrate is mixed and heated with fatty acids to produce lithium-based greases which can operate over a wide range of temperatures and extreme load conditions. Lithium-based greases are the most widely used greases in the world, accounting for around 60% of the total grease market in 2022 (NLGI 2022).


Specific Issues for Lithium


  • Substitution for lithium compounds is possible in many applications such as batteries, glass and ceramics, and greases (USGS 2019). However, there is often little incentive to use the available substitutes instead of lithium because of the relatively low lithium’s price, the stability of its supply (BGS 2016) and the technically superior  qualities of lithium-based alternatives. 


  • The recycling process for lithium was not considered cost-effective, but it has started to increase thanks to regulatory instruments in the EU like Directive 2012/19/EU (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive) and Directive 2006/66/EC (Batteries Directive) and a significant increase in the availability of scrap Li-ion batteries from end-of-life EVs. The residual capacity of batteries can be used in other applications before the recycling process.

  • In terms of supply chain risk, in Europe there is still a lack of both mining and refining capacity. Europe is a net importer of important processed materials for Li-ion batteries and/or cells, battery packs and EVs.



Factsheet review 2023

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