Electric cars driving up lithium prices

Labourers working at a lithium mine on a salt flat in the Atacama desert of northern Chile.
Labourers working at a lithium mine on a salt flat in the Atacama desert of northern Chile.PHOTO: REUTERS

Lithium producers are struggling to keep up with demand for the mineral used in car batteries

Hidden within the salt flats high in the Andes mountains of South America are vast deposits of the lithium that Elon Musk may need for his electric-car revolution.

But extracting the mineral from brine ponds created by mining company Orocobre has proved more difficult than expected.

Bad weather and pump glitches meant production at the Olaroz facility in northern Argentina was 21 per cent below Orocobre's initial target in the year through June.

While things are getting back on track, chief executive Richard Seville says the company "either underestimated the complexity or overestimated our capability".

Producers everywhere have struggled to keep up with demand as electric cars went from almost no sales a decade ago to more than half a million vehicles last year.

The battery in a Model S from Mr Musk's Tesla Inc uses about 45kg of lithium carbonate.

More mines are planned, but difficulties at Olaroz - the first new South American lithium mine in two decades - are limiting funding for new ventures in Argentina, home to the world's third-largest reserves.

"The uncertainty on the supply side is driving prices up and making investors nervous," said Mrs Daniela Desormeaux, chief executive of Santiago-based lithium consulting firm SignumBOX.

"We need a new project entering the market every year to satisfy growing demand. If that doesn't happen, the market will be tight."

Australia is the biggest lithium producer, though Chile and Argentina account for 67 per cent of global reserves, according to the US Geological Survey.

Extracting lithium from the salt flats that dot the arid northern regions of the South American countries is a lot easier and cheaper than digging underground for metals like copper. Producers just pump the brine solution into evaporation ponds and harvest the mineral once the moisture is gone.

Orocobre's experience in Argentina shows the process isn't without its challenges, especially for a newcomer.

The Brisbane, Australia-based company initially forecast production at 15,000 metric tons for the year through June. That was cut to 12,000 to 12,500 tons. And the final tally ended up at 11,862.

Unusually cold and overcast weather slowed evaporation and restricted transport of supplies, while pumping glitches meant there wasn't always enough brine in the right places.

Since then, Orocobre has invested in improving pumping from one pond to the next, just in time for the key evaporation period, Mr Seville said in an interview last week.

"Lithium production isn't easy," Mr Juan Esteban Fuentes, mining consultancy CRU Group's head of South America, said in an interview in Santiago. "It requires high technical and chemical knowledge. Clearly there will be more disruptions, to the extent that there are miners entering the market that have never extracted lithium and do not have that technical knowledge."

Rising demand for lithium used in a new breed of lightweight, rechargeable batteries caught producers of the mineral off guard.

Tesla's gigafactory in Nevada aims to manufacture about 500,000 car batteries annually by next year. The soft, silver-white metal is also used in cellphones.

Prices of lithium carbonate, the primary base-chemical produced by the industry, more than doubled in the five years to last year, according to financial consultancy UBS Group AG.

The material advanced about 5 per cent to average US$14,250 (S$19,400) a ton in July from June, according to price data company Benchmark Mineral.

With demand expected to keep rising as electric cars gain a bigger share of the global auto fleet, Argentina and Chile are attracting interest from mining companies because it costs about US$2,000 to US$3,800 a ton to extract lithium from brine, compared with US$4,000 to US$6,000 a ton in Australia, where lithium is mined from rock.

Still, most projects are expected to struggle to get off the ground. Of the 39 lithium ventures tracked by CRU, only four have firm commitments and all of those are in China, adding about 24,000 tons of annual supply.

Another 10 projects representing 400,000 tons are rated "probable" - in Canada, Chile, China, Mexico, Argentina and Australia - but probably only about 30 per cent will make it into production, CRU said.

If annual demand for Tesla's Model 3 reaches 700,000 units, as Mr Musk says could happen, the industry will need additional supplies from lithium newcomers.

While Chilean copper giant Codelco is looking to enter the lithium business via a partnership at its Maricunga tenements, the project will require deals with some of the salt flat's 40 land owners to make the operation large enough to be profitable.

Chile deems lithium to be "strategic", which means would-be producers need authorisation from the Nuclear Energy Commission and operating conditions are set directly with the government on a case-by-case basis.

Mineral exploration company Wealth Minerals estimates it will take seven years to set up an operation in Chile.

"But we have a window of only 25 years to develop these projects because prices can fall again as soon as a replacement for lithium appears," Mr Marcelo Awad, Wealth's Chile manager, said in an interview in Santiago.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2017, with the headline 'Electric cars driving up lithium prices'. Print Edition | Subscribe