Technological watch

The rise and fall of American lithium

Over the past century lithium went from being a minor metal with very limited application to being one of the core elements for the electrification revolution of the automotive sector. In spite of, or perhaps because of its strategic importance in many industrial fields, lithium extraction and trade has historically been underreported. This research aims to provide a clear analysis and data for lithium extraction and trade in the United States, which was, until a few decades ago, both the largest lithium producer and end-user in the world. The analysis covers the period 1910–2016, and reports lithium flows for the mining, chemical, and end-use sectors. The data show that lithium extraction in the United States peaked in 1974 (5.0 Gg), decreasing to 1.1 Gg by 2016, and that U.S. trade of lithium ores and brines is nearly non-existent. In the chemical sector, domestic use has remained relatively constant since the 1950?s (2.3 Gg), while exports have been significant since the 1980?s (1.8 Gg year?1 on average). Imports became of critical importance in 1998, with the closure of the last domestic lithium mine. The end-use sector has grown over time, reaching 6.5 Gg in 2016, and is now dominated by lithium used in batteries (2.8 Gg). Except for batteries, there appears to be little potential for lithium recovery and reuse.

Publication date: 01/11/2020

Author: Alessio Miatto, Barbara K. Reck, James West, Thomas E. Graedel

Resources, Conservation and Recycling

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2020-07-14