lithium-ion battery pack

Lithium production numbers are often broken down in terms of lithium carbonate equivalent. But what is lithium carbonate? Find out here.

Lithium is a key metal in electric vehicle batteries, and it plays a significant role in a variety of other sectors. But what should investors know about the different types of lithium?

Here the Investing News Network takes a look at lithium carbonate, a lithium compound that is used in a range of industrial, technical and medical applications.

As Albemarle (NYSE:ALB) notes, lithium carbonate is typically “the first chemical in the lithium production chain,” with compounds like lithium hydroxide being produced with subsequent steps if needed. For that reason, lithium production numbers are often broken down in terms of lithium carbonate equivalent.

Like other lithium products, carbonate may be produced from brines or from hard-rock deposits. That said, a few companies are also looking to produce the material from clay-based lithium deposits.

Though many companies are interested in producing lithium carbonate, not all investors are familiar with it. Here are a few key points on lithium carbonate to keep in mind. Each point is elaborated on further in the article below:

  1. Lithium carbonate is used for much more than just lithium-ion batteries.
  2. Not all lithium carbonate is created equal.
  3. Both lithium hydroxide and lithium carbonate will be needed to meet growing demand for lithium-ion batteries.

1. Lithium carbonate: Batteries and beyond

Batteries have generated the most excitement in the lithium space over the last few years, with interest spurred by Tesla’s (NASDAQ:TSLA) lithium-ion battery gigafactories. However, there is more to the lithium market than Tesla, and the market for lithium is not all about batteries.

Beyond batteries, lithium carbonate is used in ceramics, glass, cement and aluminum processing. Indeed, while the battery market is growing, the US Geological Survey estimates that glass and ceramics still made up roughly 14 percent of global end-use markets in 2021. Lithium carbonate also has an important use in the pharmaceutical industry — it’s on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines as a treatment for bipolar disorder.

2. Lithium production: Different types of lithium

When it comes to lithium production, not all lithium carbonate is created equal, and end products must meet specific requirements to be used in different applications. For example, battery-grade lithium carbonate can be used to make cathode material for lithium-ion batteries, but most contaminants must be removed in order for the material to be considered battery grade.

Technical-grade lithium carbonate is cheaper than battery-grade material, but such products must have very low concentrations of iron to make the cut for end users. This type of lithium is used in applications for glass and ceramics. It’s also worth noting that lithium is used in the form of ore concentrates in industrial applications rather than as lithium carbonate or hydroxide.

3. What about lithium hydroxide?

Lithium hydroxide’s popularity has been on the rise, at least in terms of making electric vehicle batteries. It is necessary for some types of cathodes, such as nickel-cobalt-aluminum oxide (NCA) and nickel-cobalt-manganese oxide (NCM). While lithium hydroxide has traditionally traded at a premium to lithium carbonate, in 2021 and into 2022 lithium carbonate prices have overtaken those of lithium hydroxide.

Demand for lithium has risen significantly in recent years due to the growing electric vehicle market, with some arguing that lithium hydroxide could outpace lithium carbonate in terms of demand growth in the future. However, as Andrew Miller of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence has explained, it’s going to take time before high-nickel cathodes such as NCA and NCM 811 take a more dominant position. That’s because there are a lot of technical and economic challenges in terms of bringing the cost down.

At the end of the day, with lithium demand expected to skyrocket, it’s becoming clear the world will need both.

This is an updated version of an article originally published by the Investing News Network in 2015.

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Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

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