For most people in previews decades, lithium was either a controversial treatment for brain disorders or a song by Nirvana. But it is unique because it is the lightest known metal. In the 1790s, a Brazilian naturalist discovered the mineral called petalite on an island in Sweden. This mineral us usually white to grayish in color, but when it’s thrown into a fire it flares into bright red.
Then in 1817, a chemist in Sweden found that petalite contained a previously unknown element. While he was able to isolate one of the salts, he failed to isolate the mineral completely. He did, however, name it lithium which meant “stone” in Greek. It was in 1855 when a British and a German chemist were able to separate the metal entirely. This discovery led to the commercial production of lithium metal which began in Germany in 1923.
Today, more and more people also know lithium-ion batteries, because of the proliferation of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.
Below is the historical Lithium price per metric ton.
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Price History of Lithium
Two factors determine the price of lithium, and first we need to consider abundance. There’s only as limited supply of this element, because it only makes up 0.0007 percent of the Earth’s crust. Chile produces most of the element for the world market, with Australia coming in second. In the US you can only find a single mine in the whole country. It doesn’t occur naturally in elemental form, either.
With such a limited supply, any increase in demand can truly boost the price of the metal in the world market. And that’s happening right now because of the current success of the Tesla car company. The electric car industry is rising like a phoenix, with Apple and Google poised to launch their own versions soon. Even the Chinese, with the billionaire Jia Yueting leading the way, will also enter the scene with a billion-dollar factory set for car production by 2017.
What these things all mean is that the demand for lithium-ion batteries will rise even further. The price of lithium carbonate is up by 47% from 2015 and the year 2017 will see increased sales of pure electric cars. Add the fact that Li-ion batteries are also used for mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other wearable devices, and the demand for the commodity will surely increase as well.
Investing in Lithium
There are generally two ways to invest in this metal. You can directly buy stocks in companies involved in lithium mining or in Li-ion battery production. Or you can get involved in funds that invest in companies of this type.
The success of your investment will depend on the sustained popularity of mobile devices and the increased popularity of electric cars. All these devices need Li-ion batteries, and as such the demand for the metal will skyrocket. The global market for these batteries was $11.7 billion back in 2012. By the end of 2016, that’s expected to double to $22.5 billion.
Also in 2012, the automotive sector accounted for 14% of the Li-ion battery market. By the end of 2016, this will grow to as much as 25% by the end of 2016.
Purposes Used For
So let’s cut to the chase. Aside from various uncommon usages, lithium is used mainly as a component of rechargeable Li-ion batteries and as a treatment for several types of mental disorders.
- Its use in Li-ion batteries is perhaps its most common and most important use today. It’s found in rechargeable batteries that power cell-phones, smartphones, tablets, laptop, digital cameras, and even electric cars. You can also find this element in non-rechargeable batteries, which provide power for clocks, heart pacemakers, and various toys.
- As lithium carbonate, it’s a pharmaceutical. It’s been prescribed for conditions such as manic depression and bipolar disorder. It acts on the nervous system, and it can modify your actions and behavior.
- It is also used as an alloy mixed with aluminum, so that it can strengthen aircraft. This alloy can also be used for high-speed trains and high-quality bicycle frames.
- Alloyed with magnesium, it is used to make armor plating.
- It is used as lithium oxide in glass ceramics and special glasses.
- It is also used as a desiccant in air conditioning systems, as lithium bromide and lithium chloride.
- As lithium stearate, it is used as an all-purpose lubricant although it is especially ideal for high temperatures.
- And as lithium hydride, it can store hydrogen so it can be used as fuel.
It is quite a versatile metal, when mixed with other elements. But its use in Li-ion batteries will be the deciding factor in how the world needs it for the next few years.
According to the US Geological Survey, with the current global production of 37,000 tons a year, mankind has enough reserves for 365 years—if current demand remains the same. But experts predict that by 2040 the world will need 800,000 tons of lithium for just battery production alone!