It takes a smart dog to find hidden treasures

Battery Minerals: Lithium & Cobalt

How much is that battery in the window?

An old song talked about the cost of a dog in a pet store window. Which while nice to have, maybe too expensive. We may be getting there with the hopes for electric vehicles.

Some recent posts, by supposedly knowledgeable people have predicted that all the cars or vehicles on the road will be electric in the next 50 years. Sounds nice for the environment (maybe), but what does it mean. For a more reasonable look let’s assume that 5 to 10% of the new vehicles by 2030 will be electric/battery.

In 2014 it was estimated that 70 million new cars and another20 million new commercial vehicles were sold worldwide.  It has also been reported that this number is growing at 2.5% per year. For arguments sake let us look forward about 14 years to 2030. This says that there will be about 100 million new cars and 30+million new commercial vehicles sold that year, for a total of about 130 million new vehicles.

For a conservative point, let’s assume that between 5 to 10 million of these are electric and using Li-ion batteries (currently commercially available). Based on an average size passenger vehicle (Chevy Volt or equivalent) these will each have a 16 kWhr battery pack good for around 100+ miles on a charge. Also considering current commercial technology each of these batteries will require about 16 kg Lithium, 16 kg of carbon/Graphite), and 8 kg of cobalt. Or 80,000 to 160,000 tons of lithium, same for carbon (graphite), and 40,000 to 80,000 tons of cobalt. We could also talk about the rare earths for magnets and displays, but that just makes it more complicated for this discussion.

In 2014 according to USGS world production (for all uses) was 36,000 tons of lithium, to reach the projected goals, amounts to a 100% to 400% expansion of lithium product. The good news is that almost everywhere you can find talk about a new lithium project. But to reach those production levels (and allowing for all the other uses for lithium) is going to require a lot of new mines.

The USGS also listed the world production of natural graphite at 1,200 tons in 2014. A large portion of the carbon/graphite used in batteries is synthetic graphite from coke. So this is not as bad as it sounds, still with petroleum refining down, and the same for coal mining, this source may also be constrained.

World cobalt production in 2014 (again from USGS) was 112,000 tons; there are some substitutes that can be made for the cobalt, but not many.  Also the main source of cobalt is byproducts of other metals production and from Democratic Republic of the Congo.

If you now look at the optimistic (?) view all of the above numbers can double. And yes there are other substitutes and new technologies for batteries, but none in the near term commercial point (assuming 5 to 10 years from concept to full scale use).

So what does this mean today? There are a lot of people looking at lithium, and there are a lot of lithium projects and sources. Enough, maybe, maybe not, but definitely going to get more expensive.  Graphite/carbon production might be okay, but maybe not also. Count on the cost going up. Cobalt can be the problem; there will in all likelihood be a cobalt shortage. There are some existing technologies that use other metals, (such as nickel and manganese) but they are generally slightly less efficient.

So that pretty little battery and the vehicle it is in will in all likelihood become more expensive and there are going to be a lot more mines out there.

Glass to Batteries to Drugs – lithium

Lithium with an atomic number of 3 is a soft, silver-white metal, it is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. As I mentioned in a previous post (1) it is often confused with the rare earth elements primarilary due to its usage, but it should properly be classed as a rare metal instead.

It may be surprising to some, but the main use of lithium is not in batteries, but in ceramics and glass. From the USGS 2015 report (2014 data):

global end-use markets are estimated as follows: ceramics and glass, 35%; batteries, 31%; lubricating greases, 8%; continuous casting mold flux powders, 6%; air treatment, 5%; polymer production, 5%; primary aluminum production, 1%; and other uses, 9%.”

USGS further anticipates that lithium for batteries will continue to increase and become the main use (but still less than 50%).

Hardrock to brine - changing production of lithium

Lithium is the thirty-third most frequently occurring mineral so it is not exactly scare, but concentrations are generally too low, and extraction too difficult and costly to be economic. Lithium has historically been produced from two sources: hard rock mining and brines. A third source, hectorite clays, has been identified but production methods are still in development.

The traditional hard-rock mining is from pegmatites (pegmatite: intrusive igneous rock composed of interlocking crystals usually larger than 2.5 cm (1 inch)) containing the lithium bearing silicate spudomene.  The industry was once dominated by two major U.S. pegmatite (hard rock mineral) producers, until a third producer from Chile started production in the 1980s of various salts from brine.  

When I was young my dad worked at the then Foote Mineral hardrock mine near Kings Mountain, NC, the majority of their production is hardly used today, and new uses are gaining ground.

This shift in sources, due to the capital cost and energy and time required for conventional mining and processing, led to the shutdown of the U.S. pegmatite operations; however some pegmatites from Australia, Canada and Zimbabwe, that contain high-grade spodumene and petalite, continue to be important sources of lithium mineral concentrates for the ceramic and glass industry and other applications.

Today the majority of lithium is produced from brine.  South America accounted for 60% of world output of lithium in 2008, followed by Australia and China which combined produced 30% of the total. Two-thirds of the world production was from brines and one-third from lithium minerals.

In many cases, the primary production from brines is potassium compounds (potash) with lithium produced as a by-product. As a result of extensive exploration for brine deposits, prompted by lithium production development first in Nevada and later Chile; several deposits were identified and explored in Argentina, Bolivia, China and Tibet.

Currently two brine operations are active in the United States; one located in Clayton Valley, Nevada, and the other in the Salton Sea region of California.  The Clayton Valley facility was opened in 1967 and has been producing lithium carbonate from brines ever since.

The hard rock mining process utilizes a fairly standard crushing, grinding, and flotation circuit.

Extracting and processing lithium from brine deposits is relatively simple and low cost. The process relies on evaporation, which is dictated by solar and wind rates, as well as elevation. With lithium brine processing, we are letting nature do the work.

Brine is typically pumped from subsurface aquifers, through a circuit of evaporation ponds to increase concentration.

Generally, lithium is found with other compounds that are sold as co-products. Co-products such as potassium and boron can be very significant contributors to the overall project economics, and in certain cases can significantly offset the cost of producing lithium.

While the clay depsoits have not been exploited much, Western Lithium is developing a process for hectorite clays in Nevada (2)

The main lithium chemicals are either lithium carbonate or lithium chloride, which with the hard rock operations require further chemical processing.  The brines produce these as the basic output.

The market is expected to grow and it is anticipated that new incremental sources of lithium will be required to meet the growth in demand that is predicted for battery applications. Battery manufacturers are expected to be looking for new lithium sources that can provide a long term supply of high quality lithium carbonate, are scalable to keep pace with demand growth, and provide geographic diversity of supply.

The economics of obtaining lithium carbonate from brine are so favorable that most hard rock production has been priced out of the market. Lithium brines are currently the only lithium source that can support mining without significant other credits from tantalum, niobium, tin etc., (low manganese content within Nevada’s Clayton Valley brines significantly reduces recovery costs unlike Chile’s high manganese content brine deposits). Lithium brine resources are now the preferred method of lithium recovery.

Recovering lithium from brines is not considered hard rock mining, it is classified the same as placer and permitting is much easier and quicker.

Lithium recovery from brines could lead to a huge carbon footprint reduction because of a nearly zero-waste mining method. Once the lithium is recovered the chemicals used can be recycled, also the by-products include saleable compounds such as potash and/or boron.

Beyond Lithium to Cobalt, an important but overlooked component

Above, I mentioned that many batteries are up to 25% cobalt, and that projected car and truck battery use (assuming Li-ion batteries, still the most common commercially and for the next 5+ years) would require between 40,000 and 80,000 tonnes of cobalt. Which exceed all current (2015) cobalt use in batteries.

Cobalt has many uses, of which batteries are the main use, and growing.













Hard metals



















The other uses are also very important. Cobalt is used in alloys for aircraft engine parts and in alloys with corrosion/wear resistant uses. Cobalt is widely used in batteries and in electroplating. Cobalt salts are used to impart blue and green colors in glass and ceramics. Radioactive 60Co is used in the treatment of cancer. Cobalt is essential to many living creatures and is a component of vitamin B12. Cobalt is also used in samarium-cobalt permanent magnets. These are used in guitar pickups and high speed motors. Several cobalt compounds are used in chemical reactions as oxidation catalysts. Cobalt-based catalysts are also important in reactions involving carbon monoxide.

Which leads to requiring, at a minimum, an increase of 30% to 50% more cobalt within these next 5 years.

The sources of cobalt are from mines and from recycling, with mining being the predominate source. Today, some cobalt is produced specifically from various metallic-lustered ores, for example cobaltite (CoAsS), but the main source of the element is as a by-product of copper and nickel mining. The copper belt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia yields most of the cobalt mined worldwide.

Sources           Mined              Recycled

72%                 28%


Currently the total world production is about 124,000 metric tons/year (2014 112,000) with about 50% coming from the Congo (Kishasa), where it is primarily mined by artisanal miners who sell the ore to foreign companies, mainly in China.. Much of the cobalt is produced as a by-product from copper.

Mine production




United States




















Congo (Kinshasa)












New Caledonia












South Africa








Other countries




Note - China mined production is much less than China processed production. China is the major finished product processor.

Again assuming a relative mined to recycle ratio, this requires an increase of 37,000 to 60,000 additional tonnes mined. Or put another way, a new Congo sized production capacity in 5 years.

Anybody know any good prospects? I’ll gladly work with you on developing it.



MIke Albrecht, P.E.

o   40+ years’ experience in the mining industry with strong mineral processing experience in precious metals, copper, industrial minerals, coal, and phosphate

o   Operational experience in precious metals, coal, and phosphate plus in petrochemicals.

o   Extensive experience performing studies and determining feasibility in the US and international (United States, Canada, Mexico, Ecuador, Columbia, Venezuela, Chile, China, India, Indonesia, and Greece).

o    E-mail: