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Lithium Battery Lesson

Atomic Number 3 , "Li"


By Shawn Higbee , Technical Director Shorai Inc.


Lithium AtomMost people realize that lithium is used in batteries for many products such as cell phones, laptops, power tools and motorcycles.  But when asked,"What is Lithium?"  Many people would simply stare blankly as they struggle to answer.


On an elemental level, Lithium is known as atomic number 3 in the periodic table and is represented by the symbol “Li”.  The element Lithium is a silver-white, lightweight, alkali metal that has properties which make it ideal for rechargeable batteries.  Lithium is chemically active in pure form but more stable when bound in minerals or salts.  A majority of the world’s lithium comes from the brine found in salt lakes.  Solar evaporation is one method used to obtain the lithium from brine.  Another source of lithium comes from hard rock minerals and clays but it is more expensive to extract the lithium.  Recovery of the Lithium from hard rock minerals like Spodumene requires extensive mining techniques.  Once mined the Spodumene is decomposed by way of force, heat and chemicals to produce a lithium product mixture.   Hectorite clay deposits must go through a type of heating process to extract the lithium.   Reducing the energy required to extract the lithium from hard rock minerals and clays is one of the key areas to improve the lithium production process.


In 2009 worldwide lithium usage was approximately 92,000 metric tons, and batteries accounted for 25% of the total usage.   Lithium battery production is projected to climb exponentially over the next decades.   Lithium batteries offer huge advantages over lead acid batteries by way of lower weight, greater cell voltage, higher power densities, longer operating life and is a non-hazardous material.


The recent increases in lithium production have given rise to increased efforts to recapture spent lithium for reuse in new products.  In the US, recycling of the lithium ion batteries is producing  small quantities of lithium carbonate (Li2CO3). Lithium in the form of Li2CO3 is a common compound used for many industrial applications. Even though the average lithium content in a Shorai LFX starter battery is less than 8 grams there are other recoverable materials.   Plastic, aluminum and copper are also recovered during the recycling of Lithium batteries.


Lithium BrineA 2008 USGS study indicates that Chile has the largest reserves base of lithium in the world at 3 million tons.  The United States reserve bases of lithium are estimated at 410,000 tons.  China, Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, and Australia also have measureable lithium reserves.  Western Lithium USA Corp, based in Nevada is one of the few active lithium mines in the US.    However, University of Wyoming researchers have uncovered over a 25sq mile area in Southwest Wyoming that contains approximately 228,000 tons of lithium.


The lithium used in motorcycle starter batteries is just one part of the overall chemistry.  There are many flavors of lithium battery chemistries on the market.  These various chemistries define specific performance characteristics.  For example, Shorai Inc. uses the Lithium Iron phosphate (LiFePo4) chemistry to produce a full line of LFX powersports batteries.  The Shorai LFX batteries are designed to provide exceptional cranking performance with a maximum discharge rating of 45C.  LFX batteries also offer extremely low resistance through the use of a nano scale phosphate cathode material.  And the LiFePo4 chemistry is known for providing enhanced safety, good thermal stability, and long life span.


So the next time someone asks you what is lithium?  You’ll be well equipped for a speedy response.