In my last post, I suggested that we “follow the money” and see how much money is pouring into lithium mining projects. That post concentrated on the Big Three incumbent lithium miners whose operations are centred around extracting lithium brine from the salt flats and lakes of Chile and Argentina.
In this post, I want to look at the new entrants to the lithium mining market. Through doing so, I believe you can get a sense of the fever pitch activity in this space. And the lithium production ramp-up will need to stay at a fever pitch for the next decade for Tony Seba‘s predictions to come true. To repeat, he states that electric vehicles (EVs) will make internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles near extinct by the year 2030 (and, in so doing, this will trigger an extraordinary social and geopolitical transformation).
But before so doing, I want to again provide context. A web article headline saying that company X aims to produce Y amount of lithium has no meaning if we can’t translate that into EVs on the road. Hence, let us repeat this chart from my last post by one of the Big Three incumbent lithium miners FMC:
I’m going to pluck out three very useful numbers from this presentation. First, total demand for lithium carbonate equivalent (see my post here for how that differs from lithium metal) was 215,000 tonnes in 2017. Second, FMC and most observers believe that the average EV sold in 2025 will have a battery size of 50 kilowatt hours (kWh). Third, around 1 kilogram (kg) of lithium is required per 1 kWh of battery cell. Since there are 1,000 kgs in a tonne, 215,000 tonnes of LCE translates into 21.5 million kgs of LCE. If each EV uses 50 kgs of LCE, then by dividing our 21.5 million kgs by 50 gives us 4.3 million EVs.
Now we have some context: if we allocated all our current lithium production capacity to EVs, we could produce 4.3 million of them. But to stay on Tony Seba‘s S curve we need to produce 22 million EVs in 2023 in order to have a chance of hitting 130 million EVs in 2030. So we need to find a lot more lithium.
Tougher still, the majority of existing production is being accounted for by uses that don’t relate to batteries:
And of the battery usage, the vast majority of lithium goes into consumer electronics rather than EVs (from a paper by Sun et al).
That chart is based on 2016 numbers, so in terms of lithium-ion batteries alone, we likely were around one third lithium for EVs, one third for phones and one third for portable computers in 2017. Accordingly, since lithium-ion batteries make up 45% of overall lithium demand, and EVs make up one third of lithium-ion battery demand, then EVs account for around 15% of overall lithium demand at the current time.
Given LCE production of 215,000 tonnes in 2017, this suggests 32,250 tonnes ended up in EVs. Dividing that by 50kg per car would get us on 645,000 EVs compared with actual sales of around 1.3 million. However, the EV market is still dominated by plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) and city EVs, both with very small batteries. The best selling 2017 EV in China, for example, was the BAIC EC80 with a 22kWh battery pack. So the numbers look about right.
To put 22 million new EVs on the road in 2023 with 50 kWh of battery per vehicle, however, would require 1,100,000 tonnes of LCE going into EVs as compared with 32,250 tonnes today. Is that possible?
In my last post, I stated that the Big Three incumbent lithium producers (SQM, Albemarle and FMC) were intending to increase LCE production from 125,000 tonnes to 485,000 tonnes over a timescale toward 2023. That’s an increase of 360,000 tonnes of LCE. Add on existing LCE production earmarked for EVs (32,500) and that gives us a total of 392,500 tonnes of LCE. But our need is north of 1,000,000. Can we get there?
Hard Rock Drives Lithium Growth
The mining of hard rock spodumene ore is where the real action is taking place in terms of capacity expansion, with Australian miners at the front of the pack. Nonetheless, tucked in behind the Aussies and a couple of years behind are a plethora of projects being advanced across the globe.
Generally, the investment community has been behind the curve in terms of forecasting lithium production hikes, but each new report pushes projections higher. The Canadian broker Canaccord Genuity in a report released in April 2018 sees a ramp up to over 900,000 tonnes of LCE in 2023. And given we are seeing funding announcements every day for new mines, I think it will be relatively easy to push that number above the 1 million tonnes mark. From the chart below you can see that the big gains are coming from hard rock, not brine operations.
The increase in hard rock supply is coming from both the expansion of existing mines and the introduction of new ones:
In the chart below, the production jumps for hard rock are broken down by mine. Importantly, of the mines listed, Greenbushes, Mt Marion, Mt Cattlin, Bald Hill and the two Pigangoora mines are all located in Australia and now in production. Further, Mt Holland and Wodgina, also in Australia, are fully funded and in the development stage. Let’s look at them more closely.
Talison Lithium (Greenbushes Mine, Australia): Talisan Lithium has been the role model for other Australian hard rock lithium projects due to the success of its Greenbrushes mine. The company is a joint venture between Tianqi Lithium of China and the US firm Albemarle. The current capacity of the mine is 80,000 tonnes of LCE, making it the largest single source of lithium in the world, but the firm has announced plans to double its capacity to 160,000 tonnes.
Neometals/Mineral Resources/Ganfeng Lithium (Mount Marion Mine, Australia): Mount Marion is a joint venture between the three partners: Neometals (13.8%), Mineral Resources (43.1%) and Ganfeng Lithium (43.1%). Stage 1 of the mine plan was complied in 2017, with the ability to produced 25,000 tonnes of LCE a year. After further ramp-ups, the joint venture is targeting production of 450,000 tonnes of 6% spodumene, which translates into 145,000 tonnes of LCE.
Galaxy Resources (Mount Cattlin, Australia): The Mount Cattlin hard rock lithium mine ramped up smoothly in 2017 to reach a run-rate of 19,500 tonnes of LCE by year end. In May 2018, the Korean steel company POSCO, which is also a leader in battery materials, paid Galaxy $280 million for rights to the Salar de Hombre Muerto brine concessions in Argentina. Galaxy will, in turn, use the capital to fast track another new brine project Sal de Vida in Argentina and a hard rock project James Bay in Quebec.
Pilbara Minerals (Pilgangoora): Pilbara’s mine will commence producing concentrate from June 2018. In Stage 1, the company is targeting 43,000 tonnes of LCE, rising to 100,000 tonnes after Stage 2 is completed. It has already signed off-take agreements with General Lithium, Ganfeng, Great Wall Motors and POSCO of Korea,
Altura Mining (Pilgangoora): Altura is just commencing operations and aims in Stage 1 to reach production of 30,000 tonnes of LCE. Stage 2 will double the LCE output. Off-take partners are Optimum Nano and Lion Energy.
Tawana/Alliance Mineral Assets (Bald Hill): The mine went into commercial production in April 2018 and is targeting around 20,000 tonnes of LCE with a stage 2 and 3 ramp-up also planned.
Mineral Resources (Wodgina Mine, Australia): The Wodgina project is the world’s largest hard rock lithium deposit. Mineral Resources (MRC) aims to produce 750,000 tonnes of spodumene 6% once the mine reaches full production in future, which is 240,000 LCE, or equivalent to the world’s current production. MRC is looking to sell off a 49% minority stake in Wodgina. It will be fascinating to see who will step up to buy this stake, one of the largest, highest quality lithium assets in the world up for auction..
Kidman Resources/SQM (Mount Holland Australia): The Earl Grey Project at Mount Holland is a 50:50 joint venture between Kidman Resources and one of the Big Three lithium miners SQM, with a resource of 7 million tonnes of LCE and an eventual annual production of 40,000 tonnes of LCE and is planned to come on stream in 2021.The JV is planning to be an integrated operation, with the principal end project being lithium hydroxide. Tesla has already entered into an off-take agreement to take a large part of the plant’s output.
Outside of Australia, the pace of development had been slower, but then in the first few months of 2018 activity suddenly accelerated, with important announcements surrounding two large Canadian mining projects.
North American Lithium (Abititi, Quebec, Canada): In March 2018, the Chinese battery manufacturing CATL took a 90% controlling stake in North American Lithium. CATL‘s battery factory expansion plans will make it into the largest battery manufacturer in the world and it wants to nail down guaranteed lithium supply. The first stage of the Abitibi project will see production of 23,000 tonnes of lithium. Prior to the CATL takeover, the company was hoping to raise $425 million with a tentative production of 25,000 tonnes of LCE scheduled for 2020. Given the delays prior to CATL’s move, that date for commercial production would appear to be a stretch goal, but the financing now appears in the bag.
Nemaska Lithium (Whabouchi, Quebec, Canada): The Whabouchi project, like the one at Abititi, appeared to be stuck at the financing stage for the last few years, but then everything changed with three quick-step developments. First, the company announced a US$350 million bond offering in April 2018 that was fully subscribed. Almost simultaneously, the Japanese tech giant Softbank bought a 10% stake in Nemaska for C$100 million. Then in May 2018, Nemaska came back to the market with a C$360 million stock offering, which again was placed easily. These moves, together with a $150 million streaming agreement with Orion (under which it sells a future stream of its lithium production for an upfront lump sum payment), mean Nemaska secured a C$1.1 billion financing package in the space of a few months. The company is now looking to reach commercial production in the second half of 2020, with an initial aim of producing 32,000 tonnes of LCE a year. It has already secured agreements to sell the lithium it produces to a large new battery manufacturer starting up in Europe: Northvolt.
If you think hard rock activity is restricted to Australia and Canada, here is a list of other projects that are progressing, albeit a little behind the Aussies and the Canadians:
- Rio Tinto (Jadar, Serbia)
- Birimian (Goulamina, Mali)
- AMG (Mibra, Brazil)
- Bacanora (Sonora, Mexico)
- Prospect (Arcadia, Zimbabwe)
- Piedmont (North Carolina, USA)
- Lepidico (Alvarroes, Portugal)
- Novo Litio (Lucidakota, Portugal)
There are a lot more projects out there, but that’s enough for now on lithium projects.
Finally, some thoughts on the scale of the ramp-up in lithium mine production. Projects either recently put in place, starting up now, or planned are raising total global lithium production capacity five fold from a little over 200,000 tonnes of LCE in 2017 to likely over one million tonnes in the early 2020s.
That kind of production hike costs an awful lot of money, but the money has been secured. In other words, a lot of smart people believe the market will be able to absorb over one million tonnes of LCE within five years. If they are wrong, the price of lithium will collapse and these projects will founder and those same people will lose an awful lot of money.
Bottom line: to not lose money those financiers are betting the market can absorb a five-fold hike in lithium production. And the only way that will happen is if EV production and sales rise almost 20-fold from their current levels. And a 20-fold rise in EV sales will keep us broadly in line with Tony Seba‘s S curve through to the early 2020s. So a lot of big money believes in Tony‘s vision (even though most players don’t realize they do).
Of course, to get to Tony Seba‘s ultimate forecast of 130 million EV sales in 2030 would require lithium production to not only jump five-fold between now and say 2022, but also then jump six fold again through to 2030. Five times six equals 30. That is a lot of lithium! But a thirty-fold jump in lithium demand also means an awful lot of money to be made. In sum, Tony Seba‘s vision rests on a mountain of lithium. To grasp whether that mountain will grow big enough, just listen to Deep Throat‘s advice:
For those of you coming to this series of posts midway, here is a link to the beginning of the series.