Global end-use markets are estimated as follows: ceramics and glass, 35%; batteries, 31%; lubricating greases, 8%; air treatment, 5%; primary aluminum production, 1%; continuous casting, 6%; rubber and thermoplastics, 5%; and other uses, 9%. Lithium use in batteries expanded significantly in recent years because rechargeable lithium batteries were being used increasingly in portable electronic devices and electrical tools.
Chile was the leading lithium chemical producer in the world; Argentina, China, and the United States also were major producers. Australia and Zimbabwe were major producers of lithium ore concentrates. The United States remained the leading importer of lithium minerals and compounds and the leading producer of value-added lithium materials.
Market conditions improved for lithium-based products in 2010. Sales volumes for the major lithium producers were reported to be up more than 30% by mid-2010. Consumption by lithium end-use markets for batteries, ceramics and glass, grease, and other industrial applications all increased. The leading lithium producer in Chile lowered its lithium prices by 20% in 2010. Many new companies continued exploring for lithium on claims worldwide. Numerous claims in Nevada, as well as Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, and Canada, have been leased or staked.
The only active lithium carbonate plant in the United States was a brine operation in Nevada. Subsurface brines have become the dominant raw material for lithium carbonate production worldwide because of lower production costs compared with the mining and processing costs for hard-rock ores. Two brine operations in Chile dominate the world market, and a facility at a brine deposit in Argentina produced lithium carbonate and lithium chloride. Two additional brine operations were under development in Argentina. Worldwide, most lithium minerals mined were used directly as ore concentrates in ceramics and glass applications rather than as feedstock for lithium carbonate and other lithium compounds.
In an effort to increase the quality of lithium suitable for advanced transportation batteries, the sole active lithium production company in United States began the expansion of its lithium operation in North Carolina to include battery-grade lithium hydroxide. Funding for the project was obtained in part from the U.S. Department of Energy. An emerging Australian lithium ore producer commenced lithium concentrate production in Western Australia. The lithium concentrate was to be converted to battery-grade lithium carbonate in China to supply the Asian market. Australia's leading lithium ore miner merged with an emerging lithium brine mining company to develop a lithium brine operation in Chile.
Batteries, especially rechargeable batteries, are the uses for lithium compounds with the largest growth potential. Demand for rechargeable lithium batteries continued to gain market share over rechargeable nonlithium batteries for use in cordless tools, portable computers and cellular telephones, and video cameras. Major automobile companies were pursuing the development of lithium batteries for hybrid electric vehicles - vehicles with an internal combustion engine and a battery-powered electric motor. Most commercially available hybrid vehicles use other types of batteries, although future generations of these vehicles may use lithium. Nonrechargeable lithium batteries were used in calculators, cameras, computers, electronic games, watches, and other devices.
Asian technology companies continued to invest in the development of lithium operations in other countries to ensure a stable supply of lithium for their battery industries. With lithium carbonate being one of the lowest cost components of a lithium-ion battery, the issue to be addressed was not cost difference or production efficiency but supply security attained by acquiring lithium from a number of different lithiuU.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2011m sources.
U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2011