Mining 21st Century Power: Where Does Lithium Come From?

Mining 21st Century Power: Where Does Lithium Come From?

In this article we will cover the basics of raw lithium mining and production.

Did you know that Bolivia has nearly 50% of the overall world's lithium reserves? The elusive metal is one of the most important components of rechargeable batteries found in smartphones and laptops.

Since the 1990s, lithium has been primarily used to develop different types of rechargeable batteries used in today's modern electronics. But where does lithium come from? And why is this material one of the most important metals of the 21st century?

Keep reading to find out the answer to these questions and more.

Lithium Production - a Complete Guide

Lithium was first discovered by a Swedish chemist Johan Arfwedson back in 1817.  Being composed of different types of minerals taken from the ground, the chances are that you'll never see lithium in its pure metallic form because it's extremely flammable and dangerous. Once it's transformed into a finished battery, the material is finally stable and safe to use.

1. Where Does Lithium Come From?

Lithium can be taken from two different sources - brine deposits and hard rocks called pegmatites. Different types of minerals such as spodumene and amblygonite contain high amounts of lithium. These hard rocks are found all over the world, but about 1% of them actually contain lithium in decent quantities.

Lithium can also be extracted from brine deposits which are saline waters found in different countries, especially those in Asia and South America. These brine deposits have high concentrations of dissolved lithium which can be extracted and used to create rechargeable batteries. It's more cost-efficient to mine lithium from brine deposits than hard rocks.

2. Where Do Lithium Reserves Exist?

Lithium mines can be found in most parts of the world, except Europe. You can find massive amounts of lithium deposits in Africa, Australia, South America, North America, and Asia.

More than two thirds of the world's reserves of lithium are located in South America. Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia are some of the largest suppliers of lithium and these countries have lithium stored in brine deposits. Today, the largest supplier of lithium is Australia and its lithium reserves are found in hard rocks.

The Greenbushes deposit in Australia holds the most lithium currently extracted by miners. Since 2016, Australia's lithium production increased by more than 300%, but the South American countries are slowly catching up to this trend.

At the moment of this writing, the United States has reserves of nearly 38,000 tons of lithium which can be extracted from various sources. Argentina produced nearly 3,800 tons of lithium in 2015 and has reserves for nearly 2,000,000 more tons. Australia produced almost 13,400 tons of lithium in 2015 and has proven reserves for more than 1,500,000 tons of lithium.

3. How Is the Lithium In Hard Rocks Processed?

Since lithium comes from two different sources, the processing methods are different as well. For example, hard rocks rich in lithium are crushed by industrial machines and exposed to a process called "froth flotation". This is a process in which materials which are attracted to water are separated from those which are repelled by water.

The ores are then exposed to various metallurgy processes to extract the lithium and create lithium hydroxide or lithium carbonate. Various companies need lithium in different forms to create finished products, so the supplier will create a certain type of lithium designed for certain applications.

Some of the most important characteristics of lithium extracted from hard rocks are grade, by-products, impurities, and the location of extraction. The grade is the most important factor because it directly influences the economic value of the material. Some of these rocks also contain by-products such as cesium and beryllium which are valuable materials.

Any impurities contained by the rocks will be eliminated through various metallurgy processes. If the ores contain too many impurities, this can raise the cost of production. Finally, the location of extraction is important because if the infrastructure is poor, the production costs will also increase.

4. How Is the Lithium in Brine Deposits Processed?

Extracting lithium from brine deposits is a much more time-consuming process. It can take from 8 months up to 3 years to successfully extract this material from brine. Specialists are working on developing new technologies to speed up the extraction process.

Lithium concentrations found in brine deposits is usually calculated in parts per million (ppm). Brine water is pumped from the ground to the surface and placed in special ponds created by the miners. From here, the lithium will slowly evaporate and accumulate on the ceiling. This process takes many months, but it's usually more cost-effective than mining lithium from rocks.

When the lithium concentrations have been evaporated, they are sent directly to manufacturers to create different types of finished products. Lithium brine deposits are usually found in places with arid climates, geothermal activity or in closed basins which contain salty water.

5. What's the Lithium Market Share in the World?

All of the lithium produced worldwide is traded by four major companies - Chinese Producers, SQM, FMC Corp, and Albemarle.

Chinese Producers are made up of multiple organizations and companies with a total market share of 40%. This lithium producer has been founded in China in 1995. SQM is a Chilean company founded in 1968 which controls nearly 26% of the total lithium market share.

Albemarle started as a paper producing company, but today controls nearly 20% of the total lithium market share in the world. This company is situated in North Carolina, United States. Finally, the FMC Corp has headquarters in Pennsylvania and North Carolina and controls about 12% of the total lithium market share. This company covers multiple market segments such as lithium batteries, health, nutrition, and agriculture. 

Ready For High-Quality Lithium Batteries?

Hopefully you now have more insight into where lithium comes from and how it's produced by some of the most important companies in the business. While it is not exactly new, this breakthrough material is helping to shape the future the countless modern industries.

Whether you use a boat, solar panels, household electronics, or golf carts/ ATVs, you definitely need a great rechargeable lithium battery to power your device. Check out our complete collection of lithium batteries and feel free to call us directly if you have any questions on what to buy.