Tag Archives: lithium

Longing for Lithium

Salar de Atacama. image from wikipedia

Lithium is a coveted commodity. Lithium-ion batteries store energy that powers mobile phones, electric cars and electricity grids (when attached to wind turbines and photovoltaic cells). Joe Lowry, an expert on the lightest metal, expects demand to nearly triple by 2025. Supply is lagging, which has pushed up the price. Annual contract prices for lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide doubled in 2017, according to Industrial Minerals, a journal. That is attracting investors to the “lithium triangle” that overlays Argentina, Bolivia and Chile .  The region holds 54% of the world’s “lithium resources”, an initial indication of potential supply before assessing proven reserves.

Chile dominated the world lithium markets for decades. The Atacama salt flat has the largest and highest-quality proven reserves. The desert’s blazing sun, scarce rainfall and mineral-rich brines make Chile’s production costs the world’s lowest. Allied to this is the region’s most benign investment climate. Chile is far ahead in rankings of ease of doing business, levels of corruption, and the quality of its bureaucracy and courts (see charts). Its lithium deposits are close to Antofagasta and other Chilean ports;

But growth has flattened, allowing Australia to threaten Chile’s position as the world’s top producer…Laws enacted in the 1970s and 1980s classify lithium as a “strategic” material on the ground that it can be used in future nuclear-fusion power plants. There is little prospect that Chile will soon build one of these, but controls on lithium production remain as a way of protecting the desert’s fragile ecosystem.

Just two companies, Chile’s SQM and Albemarle of the United States, are allowed to extract brine under leases that were signed in the 1980s. In addition, they are subject to quotas on the lithium they can produce from the brine, which also yields other minerals….Ending the metal’s strategic status and getting rid of quotas would make still more sense. So would improving Chile’s institutions and infrastructure. 

Argentina: Under the constitution, provinces, not the federal government, own the country’s minerals. Mining firms had to find their way through a confusion of provincial rules and regulations. “It was like the Tower of Babel,” says Daniel Meilán, the country’s current mining secretary. I Argentina’s newish president, Mauricio Macri, has tried to unblock investment, including that in lithium….  The federal government is trying to harmonise provincial regulations. It has hammered out agreement on a standard royalty (3% of revenue, plus 1.5% to improve local infrastructure)…

These advances have started to unfreeze investment in lithium. In 2016 the sector attracted $1.5bn; production rose by nearly 60%….

Under the left-wing government led by President Evo Morales since 2006, Bolivia has pulled out of numerous bilateral investment treaties, denying investors access to international arbitration. His government has nationalised parts of the oil and gas industries, along with the biggest telecoms company and most of the electricity sector.  The government keeps an even tighter grip on lithium than it does on gas, its biggest export. YPFB, the state-owned natural-gas company, at least enters into joint ventures with private-sector firms. Since 2010 the right to extract lithium brine has been reserved for the state. Private firms can now do no more than gaze longingly upon the Uyuni salt flat near Potosí, the largest in the world…

Like Chile, Bolivia hopes to form partnerships with private firms to make value-added products, including batteries and electric cars, through a new lithium enterprise, Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos. But the government’s insistence on keeping a controlling stake is discouraging potential investors. In 2016 Bolivia sold 25 tonnes of lithium carbonate to China, pocketing a princely $208,000.

The white gold rush: The lithium triangle, Economist, June 17, 2017

The Hunger for Rare Metals

Indium wire. image from wikipedia

Indium, part of an iPhone’s screen, is an “invisible link…between the phone and your finger”. Just a pinch of niobium, a soft, granite-grey metal mined mostly in Brazil, greatly strengthens a tonne of steel used in bridges and pipelines. Lithium is so light that it has become essential for rechargeable car-batteries. Dysprosium, as well as making an electric toothbrush whirr, helps power wind turbines. Military technology depends on numerous rare metals. Tungsten, for instance, is crucial for armour-piercing bullets. America’s forthcoming F-35 fighter planes are “flying periodic tables”, Mr Abraham writes….[T]he “long tailpipe” of pollution left in the wake of mining and refining, rare metals..

Supplies are also a worry. In 2010 a Chinese trawler rammed Japanese coastguard vessels in waters near islands called the Senkakus in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese (their ownership is disputed by both countries). After the Chinese captain was detained, supplies of rare metals from the mainland to Japan suspiciously dried up. Though China never acknowledged an export ban, the incident caused rare-metal prices to spike, and unsettled manufacturers around the world. …

[The business of rare metals] generates $4 billion of revenues a year and also plays a critical role in systems worth about $4 trillion. China, which develops more rare metals than any other country, understands the calculus. The West, his book suggests, does not.

Excerpts from Rare metals: Unobtainiums, Economist, Jan. 16,  2016 (Book Review of ‘The Elements of Power by  D. Abraham]

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