Lithium production prospects 2017

Despite the rapid expansion of Lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery production worldwide and parallel expansion of lithium mining, there are a number of questions posed for the mid and long-term prospects of this industry. This survey is bringing you the updated analysis of raw Lithium production worldwide, providing rough estimates for the mid and long-term production trends. It is evident that Li-ion is due to retain its role as the dominant technology for energy storage in the coming years, but critical outlook on global Lithium resources is important in order to prepare for potential disruptions in this market. The recent shifts in production may also contain hints to upcoming Li-ion utilization trends and the competitiveness of alternative battery technologies.

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Lithium is a metal, which can be found in the form of Lithium salts in various locations across the globe and when in large concentrations – such locations are identified as Lithium resources. Currently, Lithium resources are utilized by a number of end-use industries, including manufacturers of batteries, ceramics & glass, greases, air treatment devices, casting mold powders, polymers and more. The most dominant utilization of Lithium has recently become electrochemical Li-ion cells and with current rapid expansion of battery production, it is assumed that batteries would be overwhelmingly dominant target markets for Lithium resources for at least a couple of decades.

Though there are several variants of the Li-ion technology on the market, the most dominant one is based on Lithium Cobalt Oxide (LCO) cathode electrodes with Lithium salts as electrolyte and carbon as an anode, which altogether require a considerable amount of Lithium metal per cell. Other Li-ion technologies are not principally different in this sense, with some variance of Lithium-containing cathodes and electrolytes coupled with a number of anode types achieving different power and specific density figures. As such, the growth of the Li-ion industry would require a parallel expansion of mining and processing enterprises – mainly targeted on producing high-grade Lithium carbonate and to a lesser degree on Lithium chlorate and Lithium hydroxide.

Figure 1. Lithium production worldwide (excluding US) 1995-2016 in metric tons, according to USGS data.

According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), the global production of Lithium excluding US, reached 35,000 metric tons in 2016 - an increase of 12% over 2015, but still not surpassing the record production in 2012. This should be added with the unreported US production, which is likely somewhere around 870 metric tons annually. The global demand for Lithium in 2016 is estimated at 37,800 metric tons, presenting a dramatic annual growth of over 12% from previous year – mostly due to rapid expansion of Li-ion battery production facilities.

It is not a secret that Lithium has become a crucial component for electrochemical energy storage devices, commonly known as batteries. Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are the unquestionable rulers of energy storage devices in portable electronics and the emerging sectors of electric mobility and grid storage. With the developing hunger of the battery manufacturers, Lithium production and processing industries are due to an inevitable rapid expansion. Despite the recent expansion of Li-ion battery production worldwide and parallel expansion of lithium mining, there are a number of questions posed for the mid and long-term prospects of this industry. While, in the mid-term there are potential technological drivers, capable to raise competition to the Li-ion technology, on the longer term there are also challenges of Lithium supply capabilities. This survey is bringing you the updated analysis of raw Lithium production worldwide, providing rough estimates for the mid and long-term production trends.

The main question is for how long this expansion is set to go on before reaching its peak, as Lithium resources in Earth's crust are limited. The latest USGS estimate for available Lithium reserves and resources is 14.0 million and 46.9 million metric tons respectively. Theoretically, with current production rates, the resources would be sufficient for more than a thousand years. This is however an over-simplification, disregarding the rapid production growth and dynamic market constraints.

Another question to ask is whether it is possible to have a more realistic estimate for future rates of Lithium production. This can be achieved by a combination of predictive analysis and a fundamental assessment of resources. First of all, the known reserves and resources of Lithium are periodically supplemented with new discoveries. During the past two decades known Lithium resources have increased by more than three-fold and there is a reason to believe this is not the end of Lithium discoveries. However, Lithium is still uncommon and thus there is a slim chance for further three-fold growth from current estimates, unless Lithium prices skyrocket or new technologies for Lithium production from low-concentrated brines are invented.

Using strictly mathematic predictive analysis on actual raw Lithium production data set of 1995-2016, but disregarding the possibility to process the total estimated volume of resources, the peak production is to be expected within one decade (which is a furtherance compared with previous estimate of 2029). On the other hand, assuming that all known Lithium resources are to be mined and processed, the peak production is to be expected only in the second half of the 21st century. It is evident that Li-ion is due to retain its role as the dominant technology for energy storage in the coming years, but critical outlook on global Lithium resources is important in order to prepare for potential disruptions in this market. The recent shifts in production may contain hints to upcoming Lithium-ion utilization trends and the competitiveness of alternative battery technologies.