Interest in lithium continues to grow due to its role in the lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars, and attention is landing on the top lithium-producing countries.
In total, about 65 percent of the lithium produced currently goes toward battery production, but other industries also consume the metal. For example, 18 percent of lithium is used in ceramics and glass, while 5 percent goes to lubricating greases.
According to the US Geological Survey, lithium consumption for batteries has increased significantly in recent years due to the use of rechargeable lithium batteries in the growing market for portable electronic devices, as well as in electric tools, electric vehicles and grid storage applications.
Manufacturers commonly use lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide in these batteries rather than lithium metal. Although lithium is a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, they also include other important battery metals, such as cobalt, graphite and nickel.
As demand for lithium continues to rise, which countries will provide the lithium the world requires? The latest data from the US Geological Survey shows that the world’s top lithium-producing countries are doing their best to meet rising demand from energy storage and electric vehicles — that said, worldwide lithium production declined slightly from 2019 to 2020, coming in at 82,000 metric tons (MT) of lithium content last year, not including US production.
Read on for a brief overview of the top eight lithium-producing countries in 2020. If the electric vehicle market continues to grow, and if lithium-ion batteries continue their reign as the top batteries for electric vehicles, it’s likely that they will produce even more of the metal in years to come.
Mine production: 40,000 MT
Kicking off this top lithium-producing countries list is Australia. It produced 40,000 MT of lithium content last year, down somewhat from 45,000 MT the year before. Australia’s production increased impressively in 2018 due to two new spodumene operations that ramped up production in 2017, along with five additional spodumene operations that ramped up output in 2018. However, a tough price environment and costs have led many to reduce production.
Australia hosts the Greenbushes lithium asset, which is operated by Talison Lithium, a subsidiary jointly owned by miners Tianqi Lithium (SZSE:002466) and Albemarle (NYSE:ALB). Greenbushes is the longest continuously running mining area in Western Australia, having been in operation for over 25 years.
Australia also holds over 2.7 million MT of identified lithium reserves, according to the US Geological Survey, which puts it just behind Chile. It is worth noting that most of the country’s lithium supply is exported to China as spodumene.
Mine production: 18,000 MT
Chile was another of the world’s top lithium producers in 2020, with its production decreasing from 19,300 MT of lithium content in 2019 to 18,000 MT last year. Unlike Australia, where lithium is extracted from hard-rock mines, Chile’s lithium is found in lithium brine deposits.
The Salar de Atacama salt flat in Chile generates roughly half the revenue for SQM (NYSE:SQM), a top lithium producer. The Salar de Atacama is also the home of another top producer from lithium brine operations — US-based Albemarle (NYSE:ALB).
Mine production: 14,000 MT
China came third for lithium production in 2020, beating Argentina significantly. The Asian country saw its lithium supply grow to 14,000 MT last year from 10,800 MT in 2019.
While lithium production in China is comparatively low, it is the largest consumer of lithium due to its electronics manufacturing and electric vehicle industries. It also produces nearly two-thirds of the world’s lithium-ion batteries and controls most of the world’s lithium-processing facilities, according to data from Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
China now gets most of its lithium from Australia, but is looking to expand its capacity in the future.
Mine production: 6,200 MT
Lithium producer Argentina’s output remained flat in 2020, achieving production of 6,200 MT.
It’s well known that Bolivia, Argentina and Chile make up the Lithium Triangle. Argentina’s Salar del Hombre Muerto district hosts significant lithium brines, and its reserves are enough for at least 75 years.
At present, lithium mining in the country shows no signs of slowing down. According to an Economist Intelligence Unit report, two mines are currently in production and over 60 projects are in development, with five close to coming onstream.
Mine production: 1,900 MT
Lithium production in Brazil has taken off in the last several years, catapulting it onto the list of the top lithium-producing countries. After achieving output of 400 MT or less from 2011 to 2018, the country’s production hit 2,400 MT in 2019. It came in slightly lower last year, but still reached 1,900 MT.
Fitch Solutions has forecast an increase in Brazil’s lithium production in the years to come, estimating 9,100 MT by 2021 on the back of new production from companies like Sigma Resources (TSXV:SGMA,OTCQB:SGMLF) and Norway’s AMG Critical Materials.
Mine production: 1,200 MT
Last year, Zimbabwe’s production remained at the same level as in 2019. Like Brazil, the African nation has seen its lithium output increase dramatically in recent years. Zimbabwe’s privately owned Bikita Minerals is its only lithium producer, and allegedly holds the world’s largest-known lithium deposit at over 11 million tonnes; other miners are working towards production. Total reserves in Zimbabwe stand at 220,000 MT, as per the US Geological Survey.
Since former President Robert Mugabe’s resignation after 37 years, there has been great speculation as to the country’s potential in the lithium market. Winston Chitando, Zimbabwe’s new mining minister, said he believes the country has “the potential to actually account for 20 percent of global lithium demand when all known lithium resources are being exploited.”
Mine production: 900 MT
Portugal produces slightly less lithium than the six countries ahead of it, unchanged from 2019.
Most of the country’s lithium comes from the Gonçalo aplite-pegmatite field. Despite this lithium-producing country’s comparatively low output, Portugal’s lithium reserves stand at 60,000 MT.
8. United States
Mine production: withheld
In the final place on our top lithium producers list is the US, which withheld production numbers to avoid disclosing proprietary company data. Its only output last year came from a Nevada-based brine operation, most likely in the Clayton Valley, which hosts Albemarle’s Silver Peak mine.
There are a handful of major lithium projects underway in the US, including Lithium Americas’ (TSX:LAC,NYSE:LAC) Thacker Pass lithium claystone project, Piedmont Lithium’s (ASX:PLL,NASDAQ:PLL) hard-rock lithium project and Standard Lithium’s (TSXV:SLL,OTCQX:STLHF) Arkansas Smackover lithium brine project.
Now that you know more about lithium producers around the world, read our article on lithium reserves by country. You can also check out our article on top lithium-mining companies to see which firms are dominating the lithium market.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.
Editorial Disclosure: Piedmont Lithium is a client of the Investing News Network. This article is not paid-for content.
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