Lithium (Li) is a soft, silver-white coloured metal. Lithium metal and its position on the periodic table of elements (top left hand side) gives us some clue as to the characteristics it exhibits. Lithium belongs to the alkali metal group of chemical elements (first column) along with sodium (Na) and potassium (K). Alkali metals are highly reactive and flammable and in their purest forms are stored in mineral oil to prevent reaction with air and moisture.
Lithium is the lightest metal and least dense solid element known to man.
Where does lithium metal come from
Lithium metal does not exist by itself in the earth’s crust because it is so highly reactive with oxygen and water.
It makes up a mere 0.0007% of the earth’s crust, so there is not much of it around, but coincidentally Australia has some of the best deposits in the world.
Lithium is mined here in Australia by Talison Lithium at the Greenbushes mine in Western Australia some 250km south of Perth. Lithium has been mined there for over 25 years and the deposit has been dated at 2,525 million years old.
The mined ore contains 3-4.5% lithia (Li2O) and is upgraded at the Greenbushes mine to produce both technical grade and chemical grade lithium concentrates. The concentrate is then required to be chemically converted to lithium carbonate before it can be used in battery manufacture. Talison is currently evaluating an expansion to start producing lithium carbonate itself. This will enable Talison to access a global customer base including Japan, South Korea and Europe.
Other producers of lithium behind Australia include Argentina, Chile and Brazil.
The demand for lithium carbonate is set to rise exponentially in the decade ahead due mostly to the forecast increase in demand for lithium batteries.