Lithium: An increasingly precious metal  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , , , ,

While the Australian mining boom is now receding in the rear view mirror, one mining sector that is still attracting enthusiastic investment is the lithium mining industry.

Western Australia currently produces about 30% of the world's lithium supplies, and 20 new companies are scrambling about the state trying to take advantage of the boom in "white oil". WA Business News has an article on the evolving market for the metal, looking at producers in Australia and South America - A Window opens for lithium hopefuls.

The investment frenzy may have already reached a peak locally however, with some investment columnists warning there aren't any bargains left in the sector - Ten years on, lithium may as well be uranium and This 'new gasoline' could burn eager investors.

The Economist also has a look at the soaring demand for lithium, with some interesting tales from Chile as the jostling begins to supply the expanding battery market for electric vehicles and home energy storage - An increasingly precious metal.

SQM, Chile’s biggest lithium producer, is the kind of company you might find in an industrial-espionage thriller. 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.

The focus of CITIC’s interest appears to lie on a lunar-like landscape of encrusted salt in Chile’s Atacama desert. It is a brine deposit washed off the Andes millions of years ago, containing about a fifth of the world’s known lithium resources. (Even more are in adjacent Bolivia but they are mostly untapped). Just weeks before, CITIC had bought a stake in a Hong Kong electric-vehicle maker that uses lithium-ion batteries, indicating its growing interest in clean-energy technologies.

The sleeping giant of lithium production is Bolivia, which by most estimates possesses the largest reserves of the metal. Evo Morales has announced a $1 billion investment push to kick start production, expanding links with Chinese companies to both extract the material and produce lithium ion batteries in the country - Bolivia’s lithium boom: dream or nightmare?.

Lithium production will clearly need to expand given the pre-sales for the Tesla 3 are now approaching 4000,000 vehicles and projected sales would consume all of world's lithium production at current levels - Rising Lithium Prices Threaten to Short-Circuit EV Market. The Chevrolet Bolt is also due out on the market this year, putting further pressure on supplies.

One way to boost production is to improve the efficiency of extraction processes. CleanTechnica has an article on improvements on extracting lithium from brine - New Method Of Extracting Lithium From Natural Brine Yields 99.9% Purity.

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