Lithium production is at an all-time high, in part due to the world’s efforts to go green via electric vehicles. But what do we know about the different types of lithium?
Here we discuss lithium carbonate, a lithium compound used in a range of industrial, technical and medical applications.
As Albemarle (NYSE:ALB) notes, lithium carbonate is often “the first chemical in the lithium production chain,” with compounds like lithium hydroxide being produced with subsequent steps if needed. For that reason, investors will often see lithium production numbers broken down in terms of lithium carbonate equivalent.
Like other lithium products, lithium 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 what it is. Here are a few key points on lithium carbonate to keep in mind. Each point is elaborated on further in the article below:
- Lithium carbonate is used for much more than just lithium-ion batteries.
- Not all lithium carbonate is created equal.
- Lithium hydroxide is becoming more popular than lithium carbonate for use in manufacturing 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) plans to develop lithium-ion battery gigafactories. However, there is more to the lithium market than Tesla, and the market for lithium is not all about batteries.
Looking beyond batteries, lithium carbonate is used in ceramics, glass, cement and aluminum processing. Indeed, while the battery market is certainly growing, the US Geological Survey estimates that glass and ceramics still made up roughly 27 percent of global end-use markets in 2017. Lithium carbonate also has an important use in the pharmaceutical industry: it’s been 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 made 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 hydroxide?
As mentioned, lithium hydroxide is becoming more popular than lithium carbonate, at least in terms of manufacturing electric vehicle batteries. While lithium hydroxide is more expensive, it can also be used to produce cathode material more efficiently, and is actually necessary for some types of cathodes, such as nickel–cobalt-aluminum oxide (NCA) and nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide (NMC).
As Jean Francois Magnan, technical manager for Nemaska Lithium (TSXV:NMX), once explained in an interview, “because hydroxide decomposes at a lower temperature, it accelerates the process. It uses less heat, less energy, so you produce more cathode material with less energy, and you can still use the same equipment.”
Demand for lithium production has risen significantly in recent years due to the growing electric vehicle market, and lithium hydroxide is expected to outpace lithium carbonate in terms of demand growth.
That might not sound like good news for lithium carbonate, but as explained above, the material still has plenty of uses beyond batteries. And since it’s still a precursor to lithium hydroxide in most cases, lithium carbonate could still have a place in the lithium-ion battery supply chain moving forward.
This is an updated version of an article originally published by the Investing News Network in 2015.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Amanda Kay, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.
Editorial Disclosure: Nemaska Lithium is a client of the Investing News Network. This article is not paid-for content.