The Lithium Hype – Challenges for the glass industry
Lithium is a key component for the growth market of rechargeable batteries and is therefore central to electromobility. Glass and glass-ceramic production also relies on this light metal. Philipp Jaenicke, Head of Strategy and Business Development for Home Tech at SCHOTT, speaks on the consequences for users and customers.
Why is lithium so popular?
Lithium is seen today as an indispensable gateway to groundbreaking future industries, used for lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles, smartphones and mobile computers, with the promise of renewable energy storage also on the rise. High market expectations have catapulted the light metal to one of the most sought-after raw materials in the world. Overall global demand is expected to increase two to three times over by 2025 according to the DERA Deutsche Rohstoffagentur. Prices for lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide, both critical preliminary material forms, rose respectively by more than 70 and 60 percent from 2016 to 2017. Prices are expected to remain highly volatile in the future.
What industries are affected by this development?
This trend could bring with it unpleasant surprises, especially for traditional lithium users. Glass, glass-ceramic and ceramic production is lithium’s second largest global market with a combined demand of 30.5 percent – behind only rechargeable batteries at 37.4 percent. The lubricant industry also uses lithium with a 7.9-percent share, particularly for additives. Lubricants containing these additives adhere particularly well to metals and are non-corrosive and highly heat resistant.
Why does glass production need lithium?
Lithium is indispensable to every glass-ceramic. Technically speaking, the lithium component is responsible for the products’ zero expansion, enabling their use in high temperature ranges without voltage breakage. We apply these central properties to many of our products, from CERAN® glass-ceramic cooktop panels and ROBAX® fire viewing panels to telescopic mirror substrates made of ZERODUR® glass-ceramic and PYRAN® fire-resistant glass. Therefore we require lithium of especially high quality from the market. Due to its proportion and high value, the price of lithium significantly determines the batch costs of all glass-ceramic products.
What is the current market situation?
The global lithium supply today is governed by an oligopoly of companies in the mining regions of Australia and Chile, currently accounting for 80 percent of global production. Additional capacities in Argentina and key production regions in Canada are expected to be developed. Production capacities are expected to expand in many regions in the meantime. Against this backdrop, DERA considers future market coverage with certain supply surpluses to be the most probable scenario.
What does this mean for traditional users?
The future trajectory of the lithium industry is primarily targeted to producing product qualities fit for the battery industry. Despite surplus supplies for the battery market, however, the market situation for special lithium carriers in traditional lithium applications – especially in the glass and ceramic industries – may stay tightened due to more specified requirements placed on lithium quality. It can’t be ruled out that higher lithium prices could lead to price increases for corresponding products – and unfortunately the periodic table of elements offers no replacement for lithium.