International Lithium Association: “The twenty-first century will be the lithium century”
Society has entered what is known as the lithium century. The expression, coined by International Lithium Association (ILiA), refers to the potential of lithium to facilitate the transition to a net zero-carbon economy. We asked its founding chairman, Anand Sheth, for his perspective on the opportunities and challenges faced by the lithium industry and how lithium will support the worldwide shift from fossil fuels toward cleaner energy and transportation.
With battery technology more in demand than ever, the International Lithium Association (ILiA) was formed in 2021 to provide a global voice for lithium producers and stakeholders, and to promote a sustainable, responsible future for the industry.
What do you mean when you say the world has entered the lithium century?
The expression “lithium century” refers to how lithium facilitates the transition to a net zero-carbon economy through rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) and energy storage systems (ESS). Coal powered the 19th century, and oil and gas dominated the 20th. We believe the 21st century will be the lithium century. The world is in the nascent stage of an energy revolution, and lithium batteries are core to the transition to a cleaner, sustainable and renewable energy sector.
The market for lithium is growing rapidly,and more and more applications are being developed. Just as mobile phones, laptops, power tools and other items were developed from being fixed-to-a-wall devices through lithium batteries, this same principle now applies to e-mobility and energy storage. It’s an exciting time.
How will lithium support the shift from traditional fossil-fueled vehicles toward cleaner forms of transportation and energy use?
The heart of an electric car is the lithium battery pack, as the internal combustion engine was for fossil-fueled vehicles. The EV market is growing rapidly. More battery-containing EVs were sold in 2021 than in 2019 and 2020 combined, and this trend is only likely to continue. This rise will go a long way to cutting carbon emissions and contribute to helping address the climate crisis.
Why is lithium such a promising energy source?
Lithium is third after hydrogen and helium in the periodic table of elements. It is the first, lightest and most reactive of all the alkali metals. Some people talk about fuel cell vehicles, but hydrogen generates energy and lithium stores it. They are complementary. Lithium batteries have the potential to develop the highest energy density cells for an effective and efficient transition toward renewable energy. Lithium is recyclable and lithium batteries are reusable, potentially infinitely. This is a powerful advantage for the circular economy. As costs drop through scale-up, its competitiveness in large-scale energy storage systems will be exploited.
We understand one of your main objectives is to promote a sustainable and responsible future for the lithium value chain. What does this mean?
ILiA is taking a leading role in the conversation around environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues and standards in the lithium industry. Our members meet all the relevant guidelines before they can mine, produce and supply. ILiA members share the vision for this trend also to continue with future producers.
ILiA aims to educate and work with industry participants on developing a better understanding of ESG third-party sustainability implementations and standards in the lithium industry. This is one of the most important aspects of our mission.
What are the challenges to maintaining a sustainable and responsible future?
Lithium producers operate under highly regulated conditions and are aware that minimizing environmental impact and working to improve ESG performance is not only required by downstream stakeholders, but also makes good business sense. Our challenge is to keep it sustainable and responsible in the face of intense market development. This was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of ILiA and why we welcome junior mining companies and new producers and seek to maintain the high environmental and ethical standards set by our membership.
Energy efficiency is another key sustainability priority since it reduces waste and saves money. It is crucial to the production process, and lithium producers are constantly seeking improvements in this area. The current technologies are already far more efficient than earlier technologies, and I’m sure even more energy-efficient machinery or processes will be developed in the future.
Electrification of heating processes could potentially also offer some advantages, provided electricity costs are competitive and the electricity comes from a renewable source.
What are the main opportunities for lithium producers?
The lithium battery sector is still in the nascent stage, and we’re already seeing new, innovative extractive technologies designed to maximize the recovery of lithium molecules. This is occurring not only in the mining and processing of the minerals and brines, but in new resources such as clays, geothermal and oil brines, and other types of lithium minerals. In the refining space, there are innovative technologies to reduce the environmental footprint and increase efficiency.
In the refining space, there are innovative technologies to reduce the environmental footprint and increase efficiency.
Cathode technologies are also developing at great speed to reach close to the theoretical maximum energy density of cathode materials. In the past few years, we have seen the development of nickel-rich cathode material and great improvements in lithium iron phosphate (LFP) technology
On the battery front, the development of solid-state batteries could deliver a step change in the growth of lithium batteries.
What are the challenges and responsibilities?
In all rapidly growing industries there are challenges, but we do not see any insurmountable obstacles. The challenges are similar to those any expanding industry faces with developing a complete supply chain and rapid growth to meet global demand.
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