Much of the world’s lithium is produced from a concentrated brine from salt flats in an area common to Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. Total world production of lithium metal (equivalent) in 2006 was of the order of 20,000 metric tons/year. Batteries use lithium carbonate, with world production now said to be around 80,000 tons/year for all uses. Depending on the percentage of new automobiles of the electric or plug-in type, the amount of lithium carbonate required globally by the next decade will vastly escalate, though there will be no shortage of worldwide lithium deposits and other sources.
Firms such as FMC Corporation and Rockwood Holdings currently process the imported lithium salts into various products, including for batteries. From a domestic standpoint, it is encouraging that lithium carbonate recently started being produced by Simbol Materials in a 500 metric tons/year plant near the Salton Sea in California. The plant is scheduled to be expanded to 2000 tons/year. It is being “piggy-backed” on an existing geothermal plant at that location. The hot “water” being used to generate electricity is actually a strong brine containing 30 percent dissolved salts that also contain significant amounts of manganese and zinc.
Albemarle Chemical says it has developed technology to extract lithium from brines at its bromium-producing facilities in Magnolia, AR. and expects to start production in a commercial facility in 2013 (size not disclosed). The company estimates that the global market for lithium chemicals may reach 600,000 tons/year.(!) by 2015.
It therefore appears that the U.S., which will be a large producer of lithium battery cars, will have an increasing amount of domestic production, as demand for this material escalates.