Lithium from seawater – it’s possible but is it worth pursuing?
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If lithium demand expands, where would we obtain increased lithium from? This is a question that industry experts are pondering.
There are currently two sources of lithium. Hard rock, and brine deposits – where lithium-rich salty water is pumped up into evaporation ponds and the concentrated solution is processed.
In an opinion piece provided to Stockhead, Lithium Australia (ASX: LIT) managing director Adrian Griffin suggested there were multiple options – one being seawater.
Seawater contains lithium in very low concentrations (0.17 parts per million). Yet seawater also contains several other dissolved minerals, so extracting lithium would be difficult. It would not work in the same way as brine pools and any technology would consume a large amount of energy.
But if recovery issues were solved, then seawater could be a beneficial lithium source.
“If the recovery issues for seawater can be resolved, its commercial advantages will centre on location and its ubiquity,” said Griffin.
“In fact exploiting seawater as a source of lithium could resolve much in the way of political uncertainty and security risks and in so doing enhance sustainability.”
Griffin also explored other sources of lithium, such as recycled batteries. Currently only 9 per cent of lithium batteries are recycled but he argued this would increase as Earth’s culture changed from a “throwaway society” to one of custodianship.
He even asserted there would be potentially a point where we could just keep recycling lithium to meet all of the world’s needs. But he admitted this was unlikely as long as the world kept expanding by 82 million people per year. He also said more innovative ways of recycling that used less energy were needed.
Another was lithum micas, which are the world’s most abundant lithium minerals. Lithium mincas are mined for tin and tungsten but the lithium is discarded as waste. Yet again, Griffin said aspiring miners needed “further processing innovation”. He said likewise in regard to lithium clays which are lower-grade hard rock deposits.
Geothermal and oilfield brines were another option. But as with seawater, there may be too little lithium to justify the cost barring innovation.
While he did not conclude on which, if any, options would work best he predicted, “an exponentially increasing demand for lithium will have the industry scratching its collective head about new sources of supply”.
The slow pace of electric vehicle adoption and the fall of lithium prices suggest the market is over supplied. If so, it is fruitless to think of alternative lithium sources.
A market overheat and further price falling is a common prediction among analysts. Morgan Stanley predicts a 30 per cent fall over the next six years.
But Griffin has dismissed this claim. He argued by 2030 the world will need 3.5 million tonnes of lithium carbonate annually by 2030. Furthermore, that’s just for electric vehicles and not accounting other uses such as energy storage.
He said the sector was “captive to misinformation, misinterpretation and misunderstanding” and this was why it came out.
“Culpable are corporates and governments – large and small – jockeying for a larger slice of what is anticipated to be a very large pie, the next global industry,” he said.
“As legislative changes pre-empt the banning of internal combustion engines around the world, any perceived oversupply of lithium may actually be short-lived.”