Lithium carbonate and hydroxide prices have more than doubled in the past year as demand growth for this critical metal continues to be driven by the use of lithium-ion batteries in the electrification of vehicles and energy storage systems.
This has however led to concerns over whether lithium supply will able to meet the strong demand growth, which continues to be supported by the global transition towards a low carbon economy, writes CHANTELLE KOTZE.
With several countries around the world committing themselves to decarbonisation targets to reduce their dependency on fossil fuels, the shift towards electrification has resulted in a rapid increase in electric vehicle sales and demand for batteries used in their manufacture.
According to metal commodities information services firm Roskill, the increase in demand is translating back through the supply chain into significant growth in demand for battery raw materials, lithium being one of them.
Roskill said that the lithium market is facing very high growth rates in demand for the lithium chemicals used in battery manufacture, while bringing on new capacity, both at the resource level and the lithium chemical manufacture level.
This forecast growth rates, Roskill believes, are likely to result in a shortage of lithium chemicals, which will result in new challenges for the lithium industry, it said in a September statement.
According to Roskill, the market balance for spodumene concentrate is heavily reliant on new projects being brought into commercialisation in order to maintain a small production surplus during most of the 2020s, although by 2028 Roskill said it forecasts a shortfall in supply compared to the demand from lithium chemical converters.
For the total refined lithium chemical outlook, Roskill forecasts a small supply surplus up until 2028 when demand growth will outstrip available supply.
Roskill says that the market balance for battery-grade lithium chemicals, is forecast to enter a supply deficit in the coming years because of strong demand growth and limited supply availability associated with the unfavourable economic environment in 2019 and 2020.
While the calculated supply deficit is real, Roskill does not consider the level of the deficit to be likely as additional supply is likely to be commissioned as exploration efforts increase, which will be complimented by changes in both upstream and downstream production technologies.
Roskill further believes that supply-side responses to higher prices and material shortages are also likely to be complimented by a demand response, reducing lithium requirements if material availability becomes restrictive to growth.
In order to avoid a growing supply deficit, which could result in demand destruction, substitution or thrifting of lithium from key end-use markets, lithium producers require favourable lithium prices to attract investment and incentivise the develop of lithium resources.
Prices of lithium carbonate assessed by energy storage minerals supply chain price reporting agency Benchmark Mineral Intelligence reached new all-time highs on the back of limited supply and high and sustained lithium ion battery demand in China at the end of Q3, start of Q4.
“Limited available supply within the domestic China market has served to push lithium carbonate prices to these new levels with lithium ion battery demand remaining high and steady after a year of significant growth,” Benchmark Mineral Intelligence said in an October statement.
According to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, high-nickel cathode chemistries, which require lithium hydroxide, have not been deployed as quickly as expected, at the same time lower energy density, but cheaper, lithium iron phosphate, or LFP, cathodes have dominated the Chinese cell production industry in recent months.
The robust demand for LFP chemistry cathodes in China has placed lithium carbonate at a historically unusual price premium over lithium hydroxide, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence said in October.
“Fundamentally, with little foreseeable downside price risk to carbonate or hydroxide pricing in the near term, as demand continues to outstrip raw material and chemical supply, the lithium industry is well and truly in the throes of its latest price rally, with further record prices expected in the coming months,” the price reporting agency said.
Lithium quality in the spotlight
As producers fast-track their exploration programmes in a bid to bring new lithium supply online in the face of increasing demand, they are faced not only with producing sufficient volumes of materials, but product quality is also expected to become increasingly important. Producers will therefore also have to ensure that the lithium they produce conforms to battery manufacturers’ stringent grade and quality specifications.
Swiss multinational speciality chemicals company Clariant highlighted during a webinar in September, the importance of effective lithium beneficiation from hard rock lithium ores, which is produced via hard rock mining as opposed to from brine operations.
Suresh Raju, global tech manager for industrial minerals at Clariant, noted the typical composition of a lithium hard rock ore contains about 12% petalite and spodumene as the lithium minerals as well as quartz, mica, feldspar as gangue minerals from the pegmatite deposit. These gangue minerals present in hard rock ores make the beneficiation of lithium bearing minerals challenging as they have very similar properties to the lithium bearing minerals, he said.
Raju said thatwhile the type of beneficiation circuit used depends on the minerals present, typically, a multi-stage dense media separation (DMS) is employed to separate by-products such as tin and tantalum and to remove the silicate gangues. The DMS circuit significantly improves the next stages in the beneficiation process, which usually entails floatation.
Froth floatation is the most widely used technique for the beneficiation of lithium bearing minerals such as spodumene and petalite. Anionic direct flotation is widely applied for spodumene concentration, however, Raju says that reverse floatation can also be used in order to achieve the quality specification target. This is usually followed by a multi-step cleaning process to achieve the specified quality target, says Raju.
A combination of anionic and cationic floatation is used to beneficiate other lithium bearing minerals such as petalite and lepidolite, Raju said
High-intensity magnetic separation is also usually employed to reduce large quantities of iron bearing gangue minerals such as iron oxides, amphiboles and tourmaline so that the final concentrate meets the required levels of iron content.
Speaking during the webinar, Raju said that these generalised flowsheets consisting of multistage DMS followed by desliming just before floatation and subsequently removing iron bearing minerals using high intensity magnetic separation have been found to be effective in concentrating lithium minerals to marketable grades from hard rock ores, with similar flowsheets already in practice at some lithium hard rock mines globally.
However Ruju highlighted that different floatation steps can be used within this flowsheet to help enrich the lithium concentrate to about 6% lithium oxide, which meets the standard grade of manufacturing lithium ion batteries.
Micas and feldspar can be floated to remove most of the gangue minerals and the tailings of this floatation step can be subjected to spodumene floatation where the spodumene is cleaned to achieve the required quality of above 6% lithium oxide.
Next, the tailings from this floatation step are subjected to further petalite and lepidolite floatation (if available) to achieve a concentrate of between 4-5% lithium oxide, Raju explains.
Also speaking during the webinar, Tim Walsh, development scientist at Clariant highlighted the company’s ability to produce custom made collectors for lithium ores with the right selectivity, kinetics and mineral recovery profile, at laboratory scale, pilot scale and full-scale production, to ensure optimal recovery.
Clariant’s lithium collectors have significantly lower consumption compared to standard fatty acid dosage, which leads to improved floatation efficiency and better filtration performance. This also translates into reduced chemical exposure to people and the environment, reduced transport and handling, reduced emissions, reduced chemicals in waste streams, and lower energy consumption.
As ore grades change, Walsh says that Clariant continues to develop more efficient collectors for better recovery, selectivity and metallurgical performance.
With the next generation of battery technologies already in development, there are many opportunities to be had for producers, battery manufactures and downstream original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs).
However, the sustainable supply of lithium-ion batteries has become and will increasingly become a key strategic industry imperative with OEMs facing increased scrutiny on whether the raw materials and components used in their products are sourced sustainably, the is the potential that this may cause disruption at multiple stages of the supply chain.