The great demand for lithium

23 May, 2023

Australia is rising to meet much of the world’s demand for lithium. As demand soars for electric vehicles and clean energy storage. 

While this helps reduce the need for fossil fuels, it raises another question – how can we source lithium sustainably?

An old tin mine known as the Cornwall pit lies just beyond the historic mining town of Greenbushes. Greenbushes is roughly a three-hour drive south of Perth, Western Australia.

The Cornwall Pit is 265m (870ft) deep and once housed a century worth of mining work that commenced in 1888, when a pound of tin was lifted out of a nearby creek. After the surface-metal had been extracted from the site, mining methods were updated. The site became an open cut mine, in the host pegmatite vein – an igneous rock with a coarse texture similar to granite.

Lithium was also discovered at the site in 1980. However miners weren’t quite sure what to make of the geological material.

In 1983, a small-scale mining operation commenced extracting lithium. It was used niche industrial operations like glass making, steel, castings, ceramics, lubricants and metal alloys. 

Decades later, the looming threat of climate change forced governments to consider replacing the estimated 1.45 billion petrol cars worldwide with electric vehicles. This is when the lithium reserves discovered in Greenbushes were seen in a different light.

Today the Cornwall tin pit is closed for business, and Greenbushes has become the largest lithium mine in the world. It is estimated that the demand for lithium could grow to more that 40x its current levels.

Spodumene is a lithium rich material that has 10 x the demand over the past two years. Spodumene is used for laptop, phone and EV batteries.

According to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, spodumene sold for $4,994 (£4,300) a tonne in October 2022, up from $415 (£360) in January 2021.

Australia has positioned itself to become a go-to supplier for lithium as the demand grows.

Which begs the question, as the world reaches for this metal in an attempt to help with decarbonisation – how sustainable is lithium mining? Whilst mining lithium in Australia is very similar to mining any mineral, if we are moving toward a carbon neutral world of battery powered devices, there is less of a need for coal mining.

There are also steps being taken toward battery recycling schemes. By starting small now Australia can build the proper infrastructure to stop waste from used batteries becoming a problem.