The new OPEC: Who will supply the lithium needed to run the future’s electric cars? – by Justina Crabtree ( – December 30, 2016)

The automotive industry’s focus on electrification has accelerated in 2016. Volkswagen Chairman Herbert Deiss told CNBC at the Paris Motor Show in November that “electric mobility will take off by 2020,” while Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced in May his aim for annual production to be at 1 million vehicles by this same year.

The onus is now on rechargeable batteries – rather than petrol – to propel the automotive industry into its proposed greener future, with lithium ion cells being the prevailing form of this technology.

“Lithium is a pretty abundant element naturally,” Jamie Speirs, a fellow in energy analysis and policy at Imperial College London, told CNBC via telephone. But, though worldwide production of the metal is increasing year on year, he detailed that “the current supply chain will not match up with lithium demand by, say, 2040.”

Unsurprisingly, as automakers gear up to sell more electric vehicles, prices for lithium have also risen.

“Owing to increased worldwide demand, spot lithium carbonate prices (in 2015) increased approximately 10% to 15% from those of 2014,” wrote the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in January of this year. So, which countries are crucial to lithium’s production – and who has the potential to control this market in the future? CNBC investigates.

Analysts CNBC spoke to concurred that China was ahead of the game in terms of its lithium production.

China’s lithium reserves are an estimated 3.2 million metric tons, according to the USGS in January 2016, meaning that the superpower ranks among those with the largest domestic supply. Most resources are located in its Qinghai and Tibet regions.

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