The Scramble for Lithium

Lithium rich brine  Uyuni, Bolivia .  The lithium-rich brine is concentrated by pumping it into solar evaporation ponds. image from wikipedia

SQM, Chile’s biggest lithium producer [has]Its headquarters in the military district of Santiago bears no name. The man who for years ran the business, Julio Ponce, is the former son-in-law of the late dictator, Augusto Pinochet. He quit as chairman in 2015, during an investigation into SQM for alleged tax evasion. (The company is co-operating with the inquiry.) Last month it emerged that CITIC, a Chinese state-controlled firm, may bid for part of Mr Ponce’s controlling stake in SQM, as part of China’s bid to secure supplies of a vital raw material…

SQM is part of a global scramble to secure supplies of lithium by the world’s largest battery producers, and by end-users such as carmakers. That has made it the world’s hottest commodity. The price of 99%-pure lithium carbonate imported to China more than doubled in the two months to the end of December, to $13,000 a tonne…

The industry is fairly concentrated, which adds to the worry. Last year Albermarle, the world’s biggest lithium producer, bought Rockwood, owner of Chile’s second-biggest lithium deposit. It and three other companies—SQM, FMC of America and Tianqi—account for most of the world supply of lithium salts, according to Citigroup, a bank. What is more, a big lithium-brine project in Argentina, run by a joint venture of Orocobre, an Australian miner, and Toyota, Japan’s largest carmaker, is behind schedule. Though the Earth contains plenty of lithium, extracting it can be costly and time-consuming, so higher prices may not automatically stimulate a surge in supply.

Demand is also on the up. At the moment, the main lithium-ion battery-makers are Samsung and LG of South Korea, Panasonic and Sony of Japan, and ATL of Hong Kong. But China also has many battery-makers…Tesla Motors, an American maker of electric cars founded by Elon Musk, a tech tycoon, is also on the prowl. It is preparing this year to start production at its “Gigafactory” in Nevada, which it hopes will supply lithium-ion batteries for 500,000 cars a year within five years….[I]n August Bacanora, a Canadian firm, said it had signed a conditional agreement to supply Tesla with lithium hydroxide from a mine that it plans to develop in northern Mexico. Bacanora’s shares jumped on the news—though analysts noted that shipping fine white powder across the United States border would need careful handling.Bigger carmakers also have a growing appetite for lithium…

Another big source of demand may be for electricity storage. The holy grail of renewable electricity is batteries cheap and capacious enough to overcome the intermittency of solar and wind power—for example, to store enough power from solar panels to keep the lights on all night.

Excerpts from  An increasingly precious metal, Economist, January 16, 2016

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