Australia is pivoting its economy away from resources like coal and iron ore, but are there other commodities we can bank on to take up some of the slack? In this “future commodities” series The Conversation explores the economic future for commodities we’ve always relied on, and some we haven’t.
By Damien Giurco, Professor of Resource Futures, University of Technology Sydney and Ben McLellan, Senior Research Fellow, The University of Queensland
Australia has an opportunity to capitalise on the increasing global demand for lithium batteries by developing recycling systems and creating models for leasing the resource.
Lithium is the third element in the periodic table and the lightest classified as a metal. This makes it a good choice in battery applications needing lightweight energy storage. Lithium-ion batteries are now increasingly common in smartphones, electric vehicles and indeed Tesla powerwalls, the first of which was recently installed in Australia.
Because of this rising demand, Lithium is considered to be a “critical” mineral by many countries. Currently, global demand is over 32 thousand tonnes per year. This is predicted to rise to between 80 to 280 thousand tonnes by 2030, with a mid-range forecast shown in the figure (a) below.
The variation in demand forecasts over the next 15 years depends on the rate of uptake of electric batteries for vehicles and storage. They are also foreseen to continue rising through to 2050 and beyond. However, new battery technologies which use metals other than lithium (for example zinc-air or zinc-bromine) can be expected to increase their market share.
New opportunities for innovation
In order to meet future demand, recycling of lithium will also need to rise significantly. A report by the International Resource Panel shows historical lithium recycling rates are at less than one percent. Current challenges to commercial recycling include limited volumes of waste batteries (as many are still in the useful phase of their life) and a lack of investment for piloting suitable recycling technologies.
However businesses and government must start planning now for collection and processing of this future waste stream, to ensure pathways are in place for reuse and recycling of what is a hazardous, yet valuable, waste. In particular, as lithium batteries rise past 50,000 tonnes per year in the waste stream by 2030, the need rises for developing efficient sorting systems to isolate these batteries and moderate the risk of fire.
Without the requisite infrastructure for local recycling, the valuable metals in batteries will not be recovered, yet environmental impacts rise both at home and abroad, as for other electronic waste.
Looking to the future, firms in Australia might also consider new business models such as leasing instead of selling lithium. This provides a mechanism for capturing value at multiple points along the supply chain (mining, battery manufacture, use, recycling) rather than relying on yesterday’s ‘dig-more sell-more’ model for national prosperity.
For example, by teaming up with battery manufacturers, Australian companies could be the first link in a green supply chain. This would involve mining lithium, processing it for use in batteries, leasing the lithium-in-batteries to users of power storage, then offering a collection chain for recycling.
In effect, this sells the access to lithium as a service, whilst promoting resource stewardship. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull suggested something similar for the uranium supply chain.
Who will supply Lithium in future?
When asking ‘where will all the lithium come from?’, it’s important to bear in mind that not all sources of lithium are equivalent. Lithium generally comes from either hardrock mining, such as in Australia, or the evaporation of salt lakes (or brines), such as in Bolivia and Chile.
Due to the differences in chemistry, it is easier for lithium from brines to go into lithium-ion batteries and for that from hardrock to be used for glasses and other applications. Putting hardrock lithium into batteries requires a further conversion process which adds to costs.
Several Australian operations are active in this space, Talison Lithium mines hardrock lithium at Greenbushes and has outlined a concept for a local plant to process to lithium carbonate for use in batteries and further research and development of conversion processes to bring down costs, this would improve Australia’s position in supplying global markets. Recent price rises in lithium have also prompted Western Australia’s Mt Cattlin mine to reopen.
While Australia was the largest producer in 2014, South America is the hub of future growth. Chile is banking on a future boom to strengthen the health of its mining sector which has until now been focused on copper and indeed has established a National Lithium Commission. Also in South America, Bolivia is sitting on huge salt flats containing lithium, but has not yet exploited them to any significant extent. In these emerging mineral economies in particular, as with many large resource development projects, social and environmental impacts must be carefully managed.
In order to meet future demand, recycling of lithium will also need to rise significantly.
Lithium (Li) is the lightest of all metals with an atomic number of 3. It is an alkali metal together with elements such as Na and K. It has a metallic lustre but only occurs in nature in compounds. The main sources of lithium are from pegmatites (spodumene, petalite, amblygonite, lepidolite and zinnwaldite), continental brines, geothermal brines, oilfield brines and the clay mineral hectorite.
How is it used?
Lithium is used in fluxes and glazes, as well as for production of ceramics and glasses. It is used in alloys to increase strength-to-weight ratios, taking advantage of lithium’s strength and light weight (low-density) characteristics. Aluminium–lithium alloys, for example, are used in the aerospace and motorsport industries.
Lithium is used in the manufacture of computers, communication devices and electronics, as well as medical applications, lubricants, fuel cells and nuclear technology. And it is used in lithium-ion batteries, which are critical to the development of electric cars in order to make them competitive with petrol engine vehicles. They predict an increase in production of lithium carbonate (the compound used in lithium-ion batteries) from 129,000 tonnes in 2011 to 499,000 tonnes in 2025 (the Tesla electric car being developed in the US is predicted to require 40 kg of lithium).
Lithium is a light metal with abundant charge-carrying ions for its weight making it ideal for charge storage in batteries. While new battery technologies are being developed, they are unlikely to be commercially available in the short term making lithium-ion batteries the most advanced currently available.
Where is there potential for lithium resources in Queensland?
The mineral lepidolite has been known in Queensland for some time but its distribution has been uncertain. Recently lepidolite has been the focus of exploration in the Georgetown region in north Queensland.
Significant quantities have been found at Buchanans Creek and the adjacent Grants Gully south of Georgetown. Exploration of this deposit is continuing and drilling to define a resource is expected later this year.
Minor lepidolite and zinnwaldite (another Li-bearing mica) has been reported from Lord Nolan and Swipers Gully tin deposits in the Stanthorpe area.
Lithium has been reported from the Bitumen and Cobree prospects in a resedimented Tertiary sandstone in the Broken River area in northeast Queensland.
Recently, lepidolite has been identified at Gingeralla (west of Mount Garnet, south west of Cairns).
The following information was taken from a Geological Survey of Queensland compiled by the Department of Natural Resources and Mines.
This article originally appeared on The Conversation.