Lithium is a light metal element usually classified as an alkali metal, in the same family with sodium and potassium. Like the other alkali metals, lithium metal does not occur in nature. It reacts vigorously with water, often explosively, producing hydrogen, and the strong alkali, lithium hydroxide.
Properties & Uses
A fundamental law of chemistry is that materials react at fixed ratios by weight. Lithium is the lightest metal, atomic number 3, after hydrogen and helium, two gaseous elements usually used in balloons.
The very low atomic weight gives lithium the highest reactivity by weight. Hence, it is preferred in energy storage applications like batteries. Indeed, lithium batteries especially for electric vehicles is the applicaton most often cited as interesting to investors.
Lithium has been known for a long time. It is often used in the manufacture pharmaceuticals. Derivatives like butyl lithium are strong bases used in alkylation--to build carbon chains. Lithium aluminum hydride is a strong reducing agent. Lithium carbonate is an orphan drug used to treat bi-polar disorder. Lithium aluminum hydride has also been suggested as an agent to store hydrogen in a reactive form.
Lithium metal dissolving in liquid ammonia is a reducing agent known as Birch Reduction. It is used to convert cold pills (pseudoephedrine) to methamphetamine. "Meth cookers" are said to use lithium batteries as a source of lithium and stolen, fertilizer grade, anhydrous ammonia.[]
Lithium is not a rare earth element.
Three companies, SQM, Rockwood's Chemetall and FMC, produce 60 percent of world's lithium carbonate. The only pure-play is Australia's Talison Lithium (24% share). Numerous penny stocks also claim to produce lithium. On Yahoo Finance the word "lithium" in the ticker look-up box turned up 72 listings.
In May, 2011, Albemarle announced plans to recover lithium from the brines they process for bromine in Arkansas. An article in C&EN indicated that Chemetall, FMC, and SQM already recover lithium from brines, but the lithium concentration found in South American brines (Chile, Argentina) is higher than those in Arkansas (1400-1500 ppm vs 100-300 ppm). Albemarle is believed to be developing a resin based concentration system which they have pilot planted.
There is at least one lithium ETF: Global X Lithium etf (ticker: LIT). The fund tracks the Solactive Global Lithium Index. Major holdings include Chilean miner Sociedad Quimica y Minera (SQM)(20.16 percent), "FMC Corp (FMC) (16.67 percent), an agricultural and industrial chemical company; and Rockwood Holdings (ROC) (7.93 percent), a producer of lithium compounds." Battery producers like A123 are minor components.
As noted above lithium batteries are of interest due to their high energy per unit weight potential. They are well known in rechargeable power tools, etc., and increasingly in laptop computers, but battery fires have been a concern. Electric automobiles are a major growth segment. Safety issues with batteries for the Chevrolet Volt have been in the news.
Like lead, when used in batteries, lithium is not consumed. Once markets mature, most lithium will be recycled. Continuing demand will replace only lithium unrecoverable or lost in handling. But for electric autos, that day may be far in the future.
An article in the Oct 17, 2012, issue of the Wall Street Journals lists recipients of grants for advanced batteries from the US Department of Energy as follows--
Johnson Controls $299.2MM Plants in Holland, MI and Lebanon, OR
A123 249.1MM Romulus and Brownstown, MI for Fisker Automotive
Dow-Kokam 161 MM Midland, MI
LG Chem 151.4 MM Holland, MI for Chevy Volt
Enerdel 118.5 MM Indianapolis, IN for Volvo
There are known to be lithium battery manufacturers in Asia, but details remain to be learned.
In 2012, A123, a manufacturer of lithium batteries filed for bankruptcy. Their auto parts business was to be sold to Johnson Controls. Wanxiang Group Corp. of China was an investor and potential buyer of A123, but the deal failed possibly due to US DOE requirements. In December, Wanxiang outbid Johnson Controls, NEC, and Siemens (WSJ, Dec 10). A123's "government business" was sold to Navitas Systems of Chicago, a spin-off from Sun Microsystems.
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