Lithium is often dubbed as “white gold” for electric vehicles.
The lightweight metal plays a key role in the cathodes of all types of lithium-ion batteries that power EVs. Accordingly, the recent rise in EV adoption has sent lithium production to new highs.
The above infographic charts more than 25 years of lithium production by country from 1995 to 2021, based on data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy.
In the 1990s, the U.S. was the largest producer of lithium, in stark contrast to the present.
In fact, the U.S. accounted for over one-third of global lithium production in 1995. From then onwards until 2010, Chile took over as the biggest producer with a production boom in the Salar de Atacama, one of the world’s richest lithium brine deposits.
Global lithium production surpassed 100,000 tonnes for the first time in 2021, quadrupling from 2010. What’s more, roughly 90% of it came from just three countries.
Australia alone produces 52% of the world’s lithium. Unlike Chile, where lithium is extracted from brines, Australian lithium comes from hard-rock mines for the mineral spodumene.
China, the third-largest producer, has a strong foothold in the lithium supply chain. Alongside developing domestic mines, Chinese companies have acquired around $5.6 billion worth of lithium assets in countries like Chile, Canada, and Australia over the last decade. It also hosts 60% of the world’s lithium refining capacity for batteries.
Batteries have been one of the primary drivers of the exponential increase in lithium production. But how much lithium do batteries use, and how much goes into other uses?
While lithium is best known for its role in rechargeable batteries—and rightly so—it has many other important uses.
Before EVs and lithium-ion batteries transformed the demand for lithium, the metal’s end-uses looked completely different as compared to today.
In 2010, ceramics and glass accounted for the largest share of lithium consumption at 31%. In ceramics and glassware, lithium carbonate increases strength and reduces thermal expansion, which is often essential for modern glass-ceramic cooktops.
Lithium is also used to make lubricant greases for the transport, steel, and aviation industries, along with other lesser-known uses.
As the world produces more batteries and EVs, the demand for lithium is projected to reach 1.5 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) by 2025 and over 3 million tonnes by 2030.
For context, the world produced 540,000 tonnes of LCE in 2021. Based on the above demand projections, production needs to triple by 2025 and increase nearly six-fold by 2030.
Although supply has been on an exponential growth trajectory, it can take anywhere from six to more than 15 years for new lithium projects to come online. As a result, the lithium market is projected to be in a deficit for the next few years.
(This article first appeared in the Visual Capitalist Elements)
Awatai, Ishaka Abdu
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