Lithium mining has witnessed a rapid growth in recent years, due to a sharp rise in demand for the metal in the energy storage space. It is a soft, silvery-white alkali metal, which is highly reactive and flammable.
The metal is a key component of lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs). The end-use markets of lithium include batteries, ceramics and glass, lubricating greases, polymer production, and air treatment, among others.
Led by a growth in demand for battery applications, worldwide lithium production went up by an estimated 13% to 43,000 tons in 2017, compared to the previous year, according to a report by the US Geological Survey. On the other hand, consumption of lithium was projected to be about 41,500 tons in 2017, compared to 36,700 tons a year earlier. The report said that lithium resources increased significantly worldwide and totaled more than 53 million tons, due to continued growth in exploration.
Here is the list of top lithium producing countries:
Australia: With a production of 18,700 metric tons in 2017, Australia occupies first spot is the list of top lithium producing countries. The country witnessed nearly 34% growth in its lithium production in 2017, as two new spodumene operations increased production of concentrate throughout the year, according to the USGS. A significant amount of lithium reserves are found in the Greenbushes area in the country. The lithium project is operated by Talison Lithium. The Greenbushes area saw the commissioning of the first lithium processing plant in 1985. In 2012, Talison expanded its Greenbushes Lithium Operations plant in Western Australia, increasing its production capabilities to around 100,000 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent per annum.
Chile: The South American country stands at second spots in the list of top lithium producing countries, with a production of 14,100 metric tons. However, the country witnessed drop in lithium production last year compared to 14,300 metric tons in 2016. The Salar of Atacama in Chile is home to one of the world’s biggest lithium reserve bases. SQM is one of the leading producers of lithium in Chile. In May 2018, SQM announced plans to produce nearly 180,000 metric tonnes of lithium in Salar de Atacama salt flat by early 2021, Reuters reported. In the same month, China’s Tianqi Lithium entered into an agreement with Nutrien to acquire 24% stake in Chile’s SQM for $4.07bn.
Argentina: With a production of 5,500 metric tons of lithium in 2017, Argentina is the third among the top lithium producing countries. In 2016, the country’s lithium production was 5,800 metric tons, according to the USGS. The Salar del Hombre Muerto district in the country holds significant amounts of lithium brines. In August 2018, Galaxy Resources has entered into an agreement with POSCO to sell a package of tenements on the northern basin of Salar del Hombre Muerto for $280m. In the same month, Argosy Minerals started production of battery-grade lithium carbonate (LCE) product from its Rincon Lithium Project located in Salta Province, Argentina. USGS said that Argentina’s leading lithium producer increased its lithium hydroxide production capacity by 80% in 2017 due to a growth in demand from the electric vehicle industry.
China: The Asian nation recorded a lithium production of 3,000 metric tons in 2017. USGS said that Spot lithium carbonate prices in China varied from $15,000 to $24,000 per ton throughout the year, due to “tight supply” of imported spodumene from Australia. However, the country is a major consumer of lithium in the world. China holds millions of tonnes of lithium resources at the Zhabuye salt lake in Zhongba County. The mining license for the natural lithium carbonate based brine is held by Tibet Shigatse Zhabuye Lithium High-Tech. Tianqi Lithium owns 20% stake the company, according to its website.
Zimbabwe: Producing 1,000 metric tons of lithium in 2017, Zimbabwe is one of the top lithium producing countries in the world. Located in southern Zimbabwe in Masvingo Province, the Bikita mine is one of the major lithium mines in the country. The Arcadia Lithium project is another major lithium asset in Zimbabwe. Located about 38km east of Harare in the Highveld, the Arcadia Lithium Project is in close proximity with the Arcturus gold mine. Arcadia spans across more than 14 km2 and features some historical lithium and beryl workings within an existing agricultural area.