Evidence Points to Few Supply Concerns for Lithium – Part Two

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Minor Metals, Supply & Demand

We are pleased to introduce Keith Evans, a geologist with extensive lithium experience having worked in the industry since the early 1970’s when he was asked to evaluate the future potential of Bikita Minerals which had, until the imposition of UN sanctions against Rhodesia, been the dominant producer of lithium ores of low iron content for the glass and ceramics industries. Subsequently, he jointed Lithium Corporation and later joined Amax Exploration. On behalf of Amax and a Chilean partner he led the negotiations with the Chilean Government to evaluate and later develop the brine resources of that part of the Salar de Atacama that had not been leased to the Foote Mineral Company. He was subsequently responsible for all aspects of the evaluation but when Amax decided not to proceed with the project, ownership passed to Sociedad Quimica y Minera (SQM).  It is now the world’s leading source of lithium. Mr. Evans consults on a number of industrial minerals and has written extensively on the subject of lithium reserves. 

This is part two of a three part series. You can read part one here. Part two covers demand and future production.

In Santiago, the issue of current chemical production capacity was discussed which is estimated at 115,000 tpa of lithium carbonate equivalents compared with current demand of approximately 95,000 tpa.

Of greatest interest were projections of future demand where the numbers vary greatly because of the varying assumptions regarding total vehicle numbers, the percentage penetration of the total market, the percentage that are lithium-ion powered and the vehicle type.    All three producers used the same figure of 0.6 kg carbonate per 1kW/h of battery capacity with the  type, battery capacity and carbonate demand tabulated below.

Vehicle  Type        Battery Capacity            LCE Demand

Mild HEV                     2 KW/H                 1.2 kg

PHEV                            12                             7.2

EV                                  25                             15

SQM, in its estimate for 2020, looked at two scenarios assuming 9% and 20% electric vehicles in the fleet with 60% and 80% being powered with Li-ion.  The annual carbonate demand ranged from 20,000 to 30,000 tonnes in the conservative case 55,000 to 65,000 tonnes in the optimistic case.   Unlike others making estimates, SQM also looked at 2030 with 15% and 25% electric vehicles in the fleet and 75% and 90% being Li-ion powered resulting in a demand of 65,000 to 75,000 in the conservative case and 135,000 to 145,000 in the optimistic case.

Chemetall also tabulated a range of scenarios with 2020 demand for vehicles from a low 5,000 to 60,500 tonnes of carbonate demand.  FMC estimated the market penetration of HEV’s at 20-30%, PHEV’s at 2-5% and EV’s at 1-3% in 2020 resulting in a carbonate demand of 70,000 tpa.  TRU Group presented a study made on behalf of Mitsubishi Corporation. They estimated the production of battery-equipped cars at approximately 5 million/year by 2020.  They also estimated that technical issues will be resolved for HEV’s by 2011, for PHEV’s by 2014 and for EV’s by 2016.

Future  Production 

Current capacity for chemical production approximates to 115,000 tpa lithium carbonate equivalents.  At the conference, Chemetall announced that it would stage expansions in response to market demand which could more than double capacity (to 50,000 and 15,000 tpa carbonate and hydroxide respectively) by 2020 and FMC stated that at current production rates they had reserves to last for 70 years.

SQM pumps sufficient brine to recover approximately 800,000 tpa of potash (potassium chloride and potassium sulfate) together with a modest tonnage of boric acid.  From this feed they have the lithium capacity to produce 40,000 tpa carbonate but the lithium in the brine greatly exceeds this and the excess is returned to the salar. The expansion potential is very large and the company claims that the returned brine contains in excess of 200,000 tpa carbonate.

–R. Keith Evans

Comment (1)

  1. Peter Ehren says:

    Keith, it is good to read blogs from people that are well informed.

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