Lithium is an essential ingredient in lithium-ion batteries for hybrid and electric cars, as well as rechargeable power for laptops, phones and other devices. It is the lightest of all metals, making it well suited for use in everything from pacemakers to jets and energy storage to air mobility. Lithium is obviously the driving force behind electric vehicles. And, the global market for the alkali metal lithium is growing rapidly. Lithium demand is expected to rise from approximately 500,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) in 2021 to some three million to four million metric tons in 2030.
Lithium production has greatly increased since the end of World War II. The main sources of lithium are brines and ores. Lithium metal is produced through electrolysis applied to a mixture of fused 55% lithium chloride and 45% potassium chloride at about 450°C.
Scatter plots of lithium grade and tonnage for selected world deposits, as of 2017 The US Geological Survey (USGS) estimated worldwide identified lithium reserves in 2020 and 2021 to be 17 million and 21 million tonnes, respectively. An accurate estimate of world lithium reserves is difficult. One reason for this is that most lithium classification schemes are developed for solid ore deposits, whereas brine is a fluid that is problematic to treat with the same classification scheme due to varying concentrations and pumping effects.
Following a hike in lithium price in 2015 and concern for insufficiency of lithium resource for the growing lithium battery industry, a peer-reviewed analysis of USGS data in 2017 predicted that there will be no shortage of lithium and current estimates of reserves will increase along with the demand. Worldwide lithium resources identified by USGS started to increase in 2017 owing to continuing exploration. Identified resources in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 were 41, 47, 54, 62 and 80 million tonnes, respectively.
In 2013, the world was estimated to contain about 15 million tonnes of lithium reserves, while 65 million tonnes of known resources were reasonable. 75% of lithium reserves could be found in the ten largest deposits of the world. Another study noted that 83% of the geological resources of lithium are located in six brine, two pegmatite, and two sedimentary deposits.
In the US, lithium is recovered from brine pools in Nevada. A deposit discovered in 2013 in Wyoming’s Rock Springs Uplift is estimated to contain 228,000 tons. Additional deposits in the same formation were estimated to be as much as 18 million tons. Similarly in Nevada, the McDermitt Caldera hosts lithium-bearing volcanic muds that consist of the largest known deposits of lithium within the United States.