According to the NLGI 2022 Annual Production Survey, lithium-based thickeners account for over 60% of the global thickener production. These numbers are down from over 70% in 2020, and for good reason. While lithium by all accounts is a capable and desirable grease thickener, growing demand from the battery market is threatening an affordable supply, which in turn is causing a gradual reduction in lithium grease production.
Lithium Consumption Forecast: Batteries versus Lubricants
Consider the historical and forecasted consumption data around lithium metals. According to estimates, consumption of lithium by the battery market will increase significantly by 2025 when compared to 2020, while by 2030 the consumption of lithium will increase exponentially. Simply put, the demand for lithium in battery applications may threaten the supply of lithium for lubricant applications, or at least drive up the costs significantly. Given the supply squeeze, the price has already risen 715% since Q3 2021. Production has not been able to keep up with demand and signs are pointing to supply scarcity for grease applications.
Supply is not the only issue. Lithium hydroxide has been identified as a potential reproductive and lactation hazard, though final classification will not be known until a final ruling is made. If lithium hydroxide is classified as a hazard, that classification will affect the way lithium-containing greases are labeled and used.
Taken together, lithium supply issues and potential regulatory pressures mean that grease manufacturers must face new realities. Lithium scarcity may continue to impact supply for grease manufacturers and continue to drive up prices. Looming legislative decisions may limit the way lithium-containing greases are used in the future. Grease manufacturers should consider lithium thickener replacements as soon as possible. The fact is, there are alternative thickeners available with reliable supply, favorable compliance with regulations, and perhaps most importantly, all without sacrificing performance.
Polyurea thickeners are a viable, economical alternative to lithium-based thickeners given the current circumstances. They perform very well in multipurpose greases ideal for automotive components like CV joints and wheel bearings, as well as severe industrial applications like in steel foundries where extreme heat is constant. They are also ideal for sophisticated applications involving high speeds and requirements for lower vibration and noise.
Due its higher thermal and mechanical stability, multipurpose polyurea greases are commonly used in fill-for-life applications in sealed bearings like, for example, industrial fans. They are excellent for inhibiting vibration due to their favorable stability and thus deliver extremely low noise in the application. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of polyurea grease is its rheology, or the ways it behaves under different shear stress, basically changing its consistency in function of the shear stress faced in the application. Add to that its pumpability for centralized grease distribution systems and its contributions to lower total cost of ownership, which during field trials reduced consumption in some applications by 20 times, polyurea greases are a winning alternative to lithium greases.
As lithium supply continues to dwindle, grease products containing lithium could experience severe cost pressures and quite possible would be at risk of not meeting production obligations. Conversely, grease products that do not rely on lithium thickeners would be relatively unaffected. Based on a specialty chemical, unlike a commodity like lithium, polyurea thickeners are a versatile solution to the lithium problem with reliable availability in many areas of the world, including South America.