Lithium is the lightest metal known to man. This third element in the Periodic table is powering the modern world. Today’s lithium batteries keep our medical, consumer and industrial electronic devices switched on, and can store energy generated by electricity grids. But it is the use of lithium-ion batteries in the next generation of electric and hybrid vehicles that will make the biggest impact on the global lithium market. It is no surprise that this silvery-white, reactive metal is often referred to as ‘white petroleum’.

The many uses of lithium

Lithium is used to store energy and to make alloys for aircraft and spacecraft parts, forms compounds used in heat-resistant glass, ceramics and industrial greases. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized the design of consumer and industrial goods, from power tools to portable electronic devices including smartphones and tablets. Lithium batteries are also being exploited to store the energy that is produced by sustainable solar- and wind-powered platforms. But perhaps the most high profile use of lithium, is in the lithium-ion batteries that are revolutionizing the automotive industry’s next generation of electric and hybrid vehicles. 

Applications of lithium

Skyrocketing market for electric vehicle batteries

There is no doubt that the market for lithium will skyrocket to satisfy the electric vehicle market. Analysts indicate that the global market for lithium-ion batteries is poised to rise from US$29.68 billion in 2015 to US$77.42 billion by 2024. One report suggests that by 2040 electric vehicles will make up 35% of all new car sales. The US-based electric vehicle manufacturer, Tesla, says that within the next few years it expects to be manufacturing 500,000 electric cars annually. The firm is building a dedicated gigafactory in Nevada to manufacture all the lithium-ion batteries needed to power its vehicles.  

Lithium demand for e-vehicles

Battery-grade lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide are used to produce the materials for different types of lithium-ion battery. The market for battery-grade lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide is forecast to overtake the vehicle fossil fuel market by 2030. Battery electric cars are becoming an increasingly attractive prospect for mainstream transport as improved lithium-ion battery technologies are being developed to provide greater power and energy density that will increase acceleration and allow greater travel distances. 

Extracting lithium from rocks and subterranean brine lakes

Lithium isn’t found as a pure element in nature, but is locked up in minerals found in rocks and in mineral springs.  About 70% of lithium is currently extracted from mineral salts that are found in subterranean brine lakes. Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and China hold the largest known reserves of lithium in brines below the surface of salt flats, including Chile’s Atacama desert. The remaining 30% of mined lithium is extracted from spodumene, petalite and lepidolite mineral deposits that are found in igneous rocks, primarily in Australia.  

Lithium production

Working in partnership with the industry GEA developed evaporation, crystallization and drying technologies that are key to producing lithium from brine concentrates or from spodumene. Our portfolio spans precipitation and membrane filtration systems for removing impurities, solid/liquid centrifugal separation, concentration and purification and fluid bed drying for lithium salt compounds. In addition GEA has world-leading expertise in the spray drying of battery-grade powder for advanced lithium battery materials. 

"GEA offers a very large technology portfolio covering the entire production chain for lithium,” comments Niels Erik Olsen, Member of GEA's Executive Board and responsible for Business Area Solutions.

There’s no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” solution when it comes to spray drying lithium-ion battery materials. GEA’s powder engineers tailor each solution to each application and specifications, and carry out comprehensive pilot plant testing to ensure that the process generates powders of consistently superior quality.

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