Infrastructure and Construction Materials Guide — Lithium

Commodity Description

Lithium carbonate is the common commercial form of lithium as used for batteries in electric powered vehicles. A secondary form of lithium is lithium hydroxide used as a lithium-based lubricant in military, automotive and other industrial uses. Lithium hydroxide maintains its viscosity (consistent resistance to flow/thickness/stickiness) over a wide range of temperatures and is stable in water.

Geology and Mineralogy

Lithium is most commonly found as a lithium clay with salt impurities in brines (concentrated salt solutions).

Primary hard rock sources of lithium include:
Spodumene as LiAl(SiO)
Lepidolite as K(Li, Al)(Al, Si, Rb)O₁₀(F, OH)
Petalite as LiAlSiO₁₀

These minerals have a lithium concentration range of from 1.35% to 3.6% with low concentrations from salt deposits. The evaporation in brine ponds is the low-cost method for recovering lithium.

A form of lithium is spodumene in pegmatites which are large crystals in a volcanic formation. These deposits are found principally in Australia. Production using flotation (a process that separates the valuable mineral from other material in the ore) produces lithium content up to 7.5% Li2O (lithium oxide). The cost of mining and separating lithium from the spodumene ore is considerably higher than from brines, but the higher lithium ore grades (higher % of lithium in the ore) offset the higher costs.

Deposits and Producing Countries

The three largest lithium producing countries are:

Australia – hard rock spodumene
Chile – brine-based
China – brine-based

For U.S. production statistics and sale prices, “Lithium,” go to p. 110 of the USGS Commodity Summaries 2024.

For World Mine Production and Reserves, “Lithium,” go to p. 111 of the USGS Commodity Summaries 2024.

Mining and Concentration

Lithium brines containing lithium clays are derived from the leaching of volcanic rocks. They range from highly concentrated lithium deposits in high altitude areas of Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Tibet and China, where lithium concentrations are found to be really high; to mid-level brines like Silver Peak, Nevada and Searles Lake, California, to lower concentration brines like the Great Salt Lake, Utah.

The lithium brine operations in Nevada are small, but the development work includes improved mechanical and chemical techniques. The Lida Valley deposits range from 98 to 120 ppm lithium. By comparison, the Chilean brine deposits range from 100 ppm to 7,000 ppm (a much higher concentration of lithium).

Brine ponds and dried lithium carbonate in Argentina

Products and Uses

Batteries

Lithium batteries have high energy density, high operating voltage, wide operating temperature range and long shelf life. The USGS estimates total U.S. lithium consumption is 93,000,000 kg or 67% of all lithium that is available for TESLA batteries. That leaves 33% of the U.S. supply for all other vehicles and other uses. One conclusion is that the U.S. will continue to rely heavily on Chilean and Chinese imports and that the cost of lithium batteries will grow significantly.

Another source has reported that Ford will require lithium batteries, and may be in competition with TESLA for available supply, not even taking into account other important lithium uses such as creating more efficient energy use in glass manufacture. Lithium and graphite may be the two most important minerals impacting United States infrastructure demand-supply.

Lithium-ion battery on auto frame

Glass Manufacturing

Lithium is used in glass manufacturing to lower the glass melting temperature for more efficient energy use. Prioritizing lithium-powered vehicles will most likely impact the use of lithium in glass manufacturing, with a result of less energy efficiency in that process, which is a problem of a tradeoff in energy savings.
Other Lithium Uses

  • Lithium is mixed with other light metals such as aluminum and magnesium to form strong, light-weight alloys (mixtures of metals).
  • Some lithium, in the form of lithium carbonate or lithium citrate, is used as medicine to treat gout (an inflammation of joints) and to treat some types of mental illness.

Substitutes

There are some substitutes for chemical uses but not for batteries.

References

SME Industrial Minerals & Rocks 7th Edition.  SME Books. Editors: Jessica Elzea Kogel, Nikhil C. Trivedi, James M. Barker, Stanley T. Krukowski, 2006.

SME Mining Engineering, Industrial Minerals review 2021 (primarily based on USGS commodity data).

United States Geological Survey (USGS) Commodity Summaries 2023.  https://pubs.usgs.gov/publication/mcs2023. The 2023 summary reports 2022 statistics.

United States Geological Survey (USGS) Commodity Summaries 2024.  https://pubs.usgs.gov/publication/mcs2024. The 2024 summary reports 2023 statistics.