There is little scope for argument when it comes to lithium. It could well be the “mineral of the future.” The demand for lithium is already high because of its use in cell phone batteries, laptops and also car batteries. Lithium is the lightest of all metals, with a density of about half that of water. It is so chemically active that it never occurs as a pure element in nature, but always bound in stable minerals or salts.
Today, lithium minerals are mined exclusively from pegmatite hard rocks using traditional mining techniques and methods through open pit or underground hard rock mines. Worldwide, numerous deposits, primarily containing spodumene and petalite, are being intensively explored for Lithium. The ore is then processed and concentrated for further processing into lithium compounds.
Ore and concentrates are primarily consumed by the glass, ceramic, and porcelain enamel industries. Perhaps the most recognized application is Corning Ware, in which lithium allows the ceramic to be used from refrigerator to oven without shattering.
In metal form, lithium is the lightest solid element and is used in lithium aluminum and lithium magnesium alloys in aircrafts, where it imparts high-temperature strength, improves elasticity and increases the tensile strength. In purified form, lithium carbonate is used in the chemotherapeutic treatment of bipolar disorder.
Portable consumer goods are expected to provide some growth in demand for lithium batteries; however the start of mass production of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles using lithium batteries by major automotive manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Renault, BYD, Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Ford, Chevrolet and GM presents the most significant upside potential for lithium demand.
Consumption of lithium compounds and chemicals, such as lithium carbonate in lithium batteries has increased by approximately 22% per year from 2000 to 2008.
Present battery applications include watches, cell phones, portable computers, wireless handheld devices, electronic games, calculators, video cameras and handheld power tools. Nearly all cellular phones and laptop computers now incorporate lithium batteries because of their higher energy density and lighter weight.
Applications od Lithium
Lithium has many uses as described below, but principal amongst them are its uses in the glass, ceramics and aluminum refining industries where it results in substantial energy savings. Lithium finds use as a metal, alloys, compounds and directly, in mineral form.
Glass & Ceramics: The addition of lithium in petalite to glass and ceramic batch compositions results in substantial energy savings by lowering the melt temperature and accelerating the melt process. Lithium is also a key ingredient in production of zero-expansion (thermal shock resistant) glass, clay cookware, and glazes. These products include Pyrex glass, pyroceram stovetops, and Corningware products.
Lithium batteries: Lithium´s strongly ionic character is exploited in conventional and rechargeable long-life (Li-Ion) batteries used in laptop computers, cell phones, ipods and scientific equipment. A rapidly growing end use is in electric cars where as a source of electricity it is expected to replace alternative hydrogen storage devices in automobiles by the year 2012.
Medicinal Uses: Lithium is widely used in anti-depression medications, and has also been used to remove uric acid from the body.
Metallurgical: Lithium is used in the potlines in electrolytic refining of aluminum to substantially reduce the electrical costs of the process. Lithium metal, when added to aluminum, is also used to create a light strong aerospace alloy.
Lubricants and Chemicals: Since the World War II, lithium has essentially replaced sodium in lubricants, resulting in waterproof greases. It is further used in the manufacture of neoprene rubber, air conditioning systems, and sanitation chemicals.
Fusion Energy: Lithium will be the premium fuel in the future for pollution free electricity generation in fusion reactors and liquid lithium metal´s high specific heat capacity and low melting point make it the best coolant for a fusion reactor.