China’s electric-car push sparks gold rush for lithium – by Shunsuke Tabeta and Naoyuki Toyama (Nikkei Asian Review – November 27, 2017)

Companies chase deals with Chilean, Australian miners

GUANGZHOU/SAO PAULO — China’s aggressive promotion of electric vehicles has kicked off a global hunt for lithium, spurring record prices for the material vital to the production of batteries used in such cars.

“We must secure lithium resources to prepare for the era of electric vehicles,” said Heyi Xu, chairman of Beijing Automotive Group. The company, in negotiations with Chilean economic development agency Corfo, proposes industrial development that incorporates lithium mining, battery production and electric vehicle assembly in Chile.

Top Chinese electric vehicle maker BYD is speaking with Chilean lithium producers, with plans for a direct investment, an executive from the company’s regional headquarters told a local media outlet. Chinese lithium supplier Tianqi Group took a 2% stake in Chile’s SQM, one of the world’s largest producer of the light metal.

China consumes over 40% of the world’s lithium but contains only 20% of total deposits, the U.S. Geological Survey says. Chile alone possesses half the world’s lithium, while South America as a whole controls two-thirds of global reserves. Yet the region’s supply is underutilized.

Brine from South America’s salt flats leaves behind lithium ripe for harvest after evaporation. But the process is time-consuming compared with operations in Australia, where lithium is mined and refined. This efficiency makes Australia the largest lithium supplier, with some 40% of total output despite containing just 10% of all deposits.

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