Lithium – resources, extraction, environmental aspects, component parts

Lithium, the lightest of all metals, was discovered in 1817 by the Swede Johan August Arfwedson. He was analysing samples of the mineral petalite from the Utö iron ore mines, when he found an oxide of a previously unknown element, which was in fact lithium.

The three main components in a lithium-ion battery are the anode (made from carbon, usually graphite), the cathode (a metallic oxide, such as lithium cobalt oxide) and the electrolyte (a lithium salt in an organic solution). Lithium-ion batteries are more stable than conventional lithium batteries and have the significant advantage of being rechargeable.

Resources

Around half of the world’s economically viable (in terms of extraction) resources of lithium (estimated at 11 million tonnes) are in the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni in the border area between Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. This area forms a triangle whose sides are approximately 36, 38 and 56 miles in length, respectively.

Extraction

Traditionally lithium has been extracted from various types of rock, but nowadays it occurs most commonly in salt solutions. From the salt solution lithium carbonate is extracted, and this is the raw material which can be commercialised on the global market.

In 2009, world production of lithium amounted to around 27,400 tonnes, of which Chile, Australia, China and Argentina account for almost 95%. Currently the largest quantities of lithium are produced in the salt flats in Chile.

Environmental aspects

Nowadays most mobile phone manufacturers have converted from nickel metal hydride and nickel cadmium rechargeable batteries to lithium-ion batteries, because the battery has greater energy density and is kinder on the environment. These batteries are completely free of any additives in the form of the heavy metals mercury, cadmium and lead.

The new battery directive requires that lithium-ion batteries should be marked with the recycling symbol, a crossed-out wheelie bin. Since the price of newly produced lithium is currently low, the proportion of recycled lithium is very low.

The diagram shows carbon dioxide emissions from production and operation of an EasyPower battery compared to a lead-acid battery.

What does an Alelion battery contain?

Here we use an EasyPower forklift battery as an example to illustrate what our batteries consist of.