Why Lithium?

Lithium (Li) is a light soft silver-white metal commonly found in three types of mineral deposits: brines, pegmatites (hard rock), and sediments. The contained lithium concentration is generally low and therefore only a limited number of deposits can be economically extracted.

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Lithium Brine Deposits

Lithium brine deposits are accumulations of saline groundwater that are enriched in dissolved lithium. The word brine refers to a solution of salt (sodium-chloride) in water. Lithium brine deposits are volcanic in origin and are often found situated in desert locations such as Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and China.

All producing lithium brine deposits share a number of characteristics
  • Arid climate,
  • Closed basin containing a playa or salar,
  • Tectonically driven subsidence,
  • Associated igneous or geothermal activity,
  • Suitable lithium source-rocks,
  • One or more adequate aquifers, and
  • Sufficient time to concentrate a brine.

Economic brines have lithium concentrations in the range of 200 to 4,000 milligrams per liter (mg/l). Other elements in solution, such as boron and potassium, may be recovered as by-products. In addition, brines can also contain undesirable elements that create problems in processing such as magnesium or toxic elements that require care in waste disposal. Lithium metal produced from brines is mostly low grade but, while the capital input for brine production is high, operating costs are low.

Lithium Hard Rock Deposits

Lithium hard rock deposits are commonly found in spodumene bearing pegmatite mineral deposits. Pegmatite is a common plutonic rock of variable texture and coarseness that is composed of interlocking crystals of widely different sizes. They are formed by fractional crystallization of an incompatible element enriched granitic melt. Most bodies of pegmatite are tabular, podlike (cigar-shaped), or irregular in form and range in size from single crystals of feldspar to dykes (tabular bodies injected in fissures) many tens of metres thick and more than a kilometer long; many are intimately associated with masses of fine-grained aplite. Some are segregations within much larger bodies of intrusive igneous rocks, others are distributed in the rocks that surround such bodies, and still others are not recognizably associated with igneous rocks.

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Most pegmatites have a composition that is similar to granite with abundant quartz, feldspar and mica. The composition range of pegmatites is similar to that of other intrusive igneous rocks and is indicated by using a modifier, e.g., granite pegmatite or gabbro pegmatite. However, pegmatites occur most commonly in granites and the term applied alone usually refers to a granitic composition. The mineralogy of pegmatites can be simple or exotic. A simple granite pegmatite may contain only quartz, feldspar, and mica. More complex pegmatites are often zoned and can contain minerals like tourmaline, garnet, beryl, fluorite, lepidolite, spodumene, apatite, and topaz.

Lithium’s Resources and Reserves

The world only five countries concentrate 76% of the resources of the mineral, being the most Bolivia, Chile and Argentina that account for 58% of the resources, this is informed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). A sector between Chile, Bolivia and Argentina was called the "Lithium Triangle" by concentrate more than 50% of the resources that reach a total of 39.5 million tons in the world.

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Of the three countries, Bolivia has the largest amount of resources worldwide with 9 million tons and Chile is the second with 7.5 million tons and third Argentina with 6.5 million tons. Table N° 1 shows the quantities and countries most important ones that have Lithium resources.

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Resources are understood as the amount of raw material that is available on earth and the reserves are the ones that are really feasible to operate and have a condition viable economic For example, in Bolivia it has the salar with the greatest amount of resources to world level, but because of its location (away from ports, height, high rainfall) and its low The concentration of lithium in brines does not make it the largest in reserves.
 
Lithium reserves worldwide reach 13.5 million tons, which corresponds to 34% of resources, where Chile has 56% of reserves. All the Lithium that Chile has can be exploited, it is the country with the best exploitation condition. In the Table N° 2 can be seen in the countries that have the main lithium reserves.
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Lithium graph!

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In 2015, 32,500 tons of lithium were produced, an increase of 2.5% in 2014 according to information published by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). 81% of production is concentrated in two countries: Australia, which is the largest producer of lithium with 41% of the market and is operated by the company China TianqI Group Mineral with a 2015 annual production of 13,400 tons of lithium equivalent and is followed by 40% of the market by the company SQM de Chile with 12,900 tons of lithium equivalent.

The great difference between these two big producers is the way they get the lithium, in Australia is by rock and in Chile by brine. The rest of the producers make up Argentina, China, Brazil, Zimbabwe and Portugal. Remark: one ton of metallic lithium equals 5,323 tons of lithium carbonate.

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The production costs of lithium carbonate are divided according to the way it is in nature lithium. The lowest costs are in brines, because these are not they have a complex extraction process where the ore is dried outdoors and then it goes through a chemical treatment plant, in the form of rock it has a system. Most typical miner to obtain large rocks, reduce size and other processes that make that the cost is higher.

The cheapest cost is for the SQM company of approximately USD $ 2,000 per ton of lithium carbonate, which maintains a small margin in the extraction by brines. The Lithium that comes from the rock has a higher cost starting at USD $ 4,000 the ton of lithiumcarbonate reaching figures over USD $ 8,000 per ton lithium rbonate. The next illustration shows a comparison of production costs by ton of lithium carbonate separated by brines (graphs in red) and rock (graphs blue) and the countries that own the production plants.
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The global lithium market is growing rapidly due to developments in the technology and energy sectors, especially in the use of lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion batteries) for automotive and domestic applications. Presently two thirds of global consumption is used in ceramics, glass, polymers and alloys, however growth in the technology (smart phones and computers) and energy sectors (lithium batteries for automotive and home usage) will see consumption in Li-ion batteries overtake ceramics and glass.
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In China the sale of all-electric and hybrid vehicles more than quadrupled between 2013 and 2014. China will continue to draw demand from the industry as it dominates the world lithium market due to the country’s massive output of goods manufactured with the metal. China is expected to rank the world’s highest annual growth increases in lithium demand as it expands its electrical vehicle market. The other major suppliers of Li-ion batteries in the Asia Pacific region include South Korea and Japan which are also projected to see increases in market. Salt lake lithium brine production in China is very limiting. The industry currently has an annual output of 10,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate and hydroxide. The lithium brine is mainly sourced from Qinghai Lithium Co, Ltd., Qinghai CITIC Guoan Co, Ltd., and Lanke Lithium Industry Co, Ltd. Although the production capacity in recent years has increased significantly compared to previous years, however when comparing to foreign companies Lithium Project Pre-feasibility Study and Economic Evaluation “American Lithium Cobalt Group” 14 such as the Chilean company SQM, American company FMC, these companies produce up to 100,000 tonnes of lithium from brines.
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In 1990 52% of the lithium was used for ceramics and glasses, 31% in the manufacture of aluminum, 8% in lubricating greases and less than 10% was used in batteries3 . For the year 2007, these percentages changed as follows: 37% in ceramics and glass, batteries moved to second place with 20% of the market, then lubricating greases with 13% and finally 7% for the manufacture of aluminum4 . In 2009 it was estimated that 90% of laptops and 60% of cell phones used lithium batteries5 . The baseline scenario for 2017 regarding the use of lithium is as follows:
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