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Lithium: The Lowdown

Posted by: Jordan Randall

Petalite was discovered back in 1800 by the Brazilian chemist José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva in a mine in Sweden, however for 17 years lithium remained undiscovered until Johan August Arfwedson detected its presence when analysing petalite ore.

Lithium was popularised in creating greases for aircraft engines during WWII, and lithium soaps’ high melting point and low corrosiveness further contributed to the metal’s growth. During the Cold War, lithium was useful in the production of nuclear weapons, and the USA became the world’s largest producer between the 50s and 80s.

By the end of the nuclear arms race, demand dropped significantly and prices reduced.

But in 2007, lithium ion batteries were developed and lithium was back. This is now the dominant use of lithium, and new techniques such as brine extraction can produce lithium at lower prices than ever before.

Nowadays, most lithium production is in South America – with supplies in Argentina and Chile – with some in China, Australia and the US (Nevada), where the brine is extracted from pools underground and concentrated using solar evaporation.

Lithium has a wide range of uses including as a glaze for ceramic and glass products, in manufacturing lubricating greases, in metallurgy as flux, in welding, as a colourant for red fireworks, as an absorber in nuclear fusion for power production, in medicine as a treatment for bipolar disorder and of course in lithium ion batteries, used in storage for grid power and increasingly popularised by the rise of electric cars including Elon Musk’s Tesla vehicles thanks to their high energy density and good charge to weight ratios.

At the beginning of 2017, Tesla launched the mass production of its batteries at the enormous $5bn Gigafactory in Nevada in the US, transforming the future for nearby Reno and hiking the price of lithium to 60% in 2016 alone. All this spells fear of a global shortage, with mining companies and investors scrambling to get in on the action.

Shares in smaller mining companies such as the Australian Galaxy Resources have risen dramatically – with that one company’s shares rising by 390% since early 2016. But lithium isn’t rare or exhaustible, so many fear lithium is a bubble which could potentially burst in the coming months and years.

Just off to listen to some Nirvana now... 🎶

Source Credit: Financial Times
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