China is slowly amassing control over the global supply of lithium, an important mineral in the production supply chain of new technologies.
On May 17, China-based Tianqi Lithium paid more than $4 billion to purchase a sizable stake in Chile’s Sociedad Química y Minera (SQM), one of the world’s biggest producers of lithium. Tianqi bought the stake in SQM from Canadian fertilizer company Nutrien.
Lithium is a critical mineral for production of high-capacity batteries, those powering the world’s smartphones, electric cars, and renewable energy grids. Expected global production of electric cars is expected to dramatically increase demand for lithium. Whoever controls the production of lithium has great influence over the price and supply chain for these emerging technologies.
SQM is strategically important to the global lithium supply because it is perhaps the most efficient producer. There are currently two major methods to produce commercial lithium. The first technique is hard-rock mining, which relies on extracting lithium from mineral ores such as petalite, lepidolite, or spodumene, a process which is costly and time-consuming. The other way is extracting lithium from lithium-rich saline brine, also known as salar.
Using pools of saline brine, SQM is the world’s lowest-cost lithium producer. The company pumps brine from underground reservoirs into giant rectangular pools across the Chilean desert. The resulting liquid after evaporation—lithium chloride—is then shipped to refineries to produce lithium carbonate.
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