Lithium developments: The past, present, and future

Lithium developments and emphasises its great potential for future applications.

While the element lithium was first discovered in Europe in the early 1800s, it was not until the 1920s that a significant commercial application was identified. The first major application of lithium was in high-temperature lithium greases used for aircraft engines and similar applications during World War II. After the war, the demand for lithium developments increased with the recognition that certain lithium isotopes could be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Initial production of lithium was all from known lithium pegmatite deposits in Europe and the US.

In the 1970s, researchers in Japan invented the lithium battery, and developments towards creating rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-on) batteries with increased storage capacity continued into the 1980s. A commercial lithium-ion battery was first developed in Japan by a Sony and Asahi Kasei team led by Yoshio Nishi in 1991.

Lithium used in battery applications required a chemical form of either lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide. As demand for these lithium chemicals grew, alternative supply sources were soon recognised where it could be recovered as a by-product of salt production from large brine resources in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile.

Presently, the use of lithium as a critical material in lithium-ion battery technology is getting most of the publicity because the transition to a low-carbon economy has suddenly created enormous new demand for rechargeable batteries due to lithium developments.  However, there are likely many more potential applications in new technology because of the unique chemical characteristics of lithium.  Its use in glass-ceramics is also growing as there continues to be innovation in high-strength glass products for computer display screens and new flexible glass products.  Lithium-based high-strength glass products could also become another important component in light-weighting of electric vehicles (EVs), through their use in the windows and display screens.  In all cases, high purity petalite or SQUI are the preferred forms of lithium for use in the manufacture of these new glass technologies.

The future of the lithium market looks very promising not only because of the growing demand for lithium in EVs but also because it has so much more potential demand growth through further innovation of new technologies including alternative forms of lithium batteries such as solid-state lithium batteries.  There are undoubtedly other ways it can be used in electronic products and in other materials where it can provide greater strength and stability. 
Furthermore, the development of LCT pegmatites will provide opportunities to create new by-product supplies of other rare elements – notably caesium, tantalum, and rubidium – which continue to be in short supply.  Preliminary availability of these three rare elements can then be used by researchers to initiate more research and development toward the innovation of new applications for these elements.  Caesium, in particular, has enormous potential in new materials due to its unique properties.  As it is the most electro-positive element on the periodic table, it can be used to make exceptionally stable compounds for use in aerospace technologies and many more.