Lithium in the future

Materials World magazine
1 Jun 2018

On 9–10 April 2018, the Geological Society held the Lithium: From Exploration to End-User conference as part of their 2018 Year of Resources. Ellis Davies reports. 

Lithium is, and will continue to be, a very important material in the move towards electric vehicles and future battery power. With this in mind, the Lithium: Exploration to End-User conference held at Burlington House, London, brought academia and industry together to further the understanding of different deposit lithium types, methods of processing, requirements of end-users, and the potential long-term environmental impacts of mining and using lithium.

The conference featured a number of speakers from various academic institutions and companies. Julian Aldridge, of Wood plc and IOM3, featured as one of the convenors, and spoke to Materials World about his thoughts on the event. ‘After discussions between the delegates in workshops and panel sessions, the major takeaways from the conference are considered to be that people are bullish about the lithium price and supply is likely to outstrip demand in the next three-to-five years,’ he said. ‘The in-ground lithium resources will fulfil demand for the foreseeable future, but the processing of lithium is a major bottleneck – batteries require extremely pure, high-grade concentrate.’

Key supply

The keynote address was given by Jeremy Wrathall, CEO of Cornish Lithium, UK. The talk, titled Lithium Supply – How do we find, mine, and process it?, covered the ‘crucial importance’ of lithium to the modern world, given the move to a low carbon economy. Wrathall presented the current sources of lithium, and reviewed the existing methods of extraction. He also looked at the exploration of new sources and extraction methods, as well as covering Cornish Lithium’s efforts to establish a commercial lithium extraction industry based on lithium brines first identified in the county in 1864 (see Materials World, March 2018).

He was followed by speakers from all corners of the industry, including lithium battery manufacturers, lithium mining and exploration companies, the United States Geological Survey and the Natural History Museum, market analysts, and multinational investment groups.

Other matters

Although titled as a lithium conference, the event did present talks on other materials important to the industry, including cobalt. Richard Herrington of the Natural History Museum spoke on the importance of cobalt to the lithium ion battery sector. He covered the recent price hike of cobalt, which he said suggests we are already witnessing an increased scarcity of supply. A possible cause could be that the price of copper and nickel has dropped to a six-year low – 95% of the world’s cobalt supply comes as a by-product of nickel and copper – making some of the mines traditionally supplying cobalt uneconomic. Herrington highlighted the need for new resources to secure supply, and suggested further exploration of Europe to those ends.  

‘After the success of this conference, we are intending it to be the first in a series of commodity-focused events held in London,’ said Aldridge.