For a long time, most lithium was produced by an oligopoly of producers often referred to as the “Big Three”: Albemarle (NYSE:ALB), Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile (NYSE:SQM) and FMC (NYSE:FMC).
Rockwood Holdings was on that list as well before it was acquired by Albemarle several years ago, making Albemarle that much bigger.
However, the list of the world’s top lithium-mining companies has changed in recent years. The companies mentioned above still produce the majority of the world’s lithium, but China accounts for a large chunk of output as well. The Asian nation was the third largest lithium-producing country in 2020 in terms of mine production, coming in behind Australia and Chile.
What’s more, Australia’s largest lithium mine, called Greenbushes, is majority controlled by a joint venture between China’s Tianqi Lithium (SZSE:002466) and Australia’s IGO (ASX:IGO,OTC Pink:IIDDY). The joint venture owns a 51 percent stake in Talison Lithium, which runs the mine, while Albemarle owns the other 49 percent stake in Talison.
All in all, the market share for the Big Three lithium producers has dropped from about 85 percent to 53 percent, while China now has around 40 percent of the world’s market share. In the future, China is expected to fuel lithium-ion battery production, which is set to increase substantially in the coming years as demand for electric vehicles increases.
In other words, lithium investors should be aware of lithium-mining companies in China in addition to the New York-listed chemical companies that produce the material. Indeed, lithium expert Joe Lowry has written extensively about China’s rising share of the lithium market. Read on for an overview of the current top lithium-producing firms by market cap. Data was current as of August 9, 2021.
1. Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium (OTC Pink:GNENF,SZSE:002460)
Market cap: US$40.23 billion
Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium is an important Chinese lithium producer that investors should be watching. The company is China’s largest lithium compound producer, and is one of the world’s largest lithium metal producers in terms of production capacity.
The mining company has interests in lithium resources around the world, including Australia, Argentina, China and Ireland, but its primary source of lithium raw materials is Mount Marion in Western Australia.
The company listed in Hong Kong in 2018, the same year it bought SQM’s stake in Lithium Americas’ (NYSE:LAC,TSX:LAC) Cauchari-Olaroz lithium brine project in Argentina.
Ganfeng also has supply agreements in place with Elon Musk’s Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA), carmaker BMW (OTC Pink:BMWYY,ETR:BMW), Korean battery maker LG Chem (KRX:051910) and Volkswagen (OTC Pink:VLKAF,FWB:VOW). In February 2020, Ganfeng upped its interest in Cauchari-Olaroz to 51 percent, taking a controlling stake in the asset.
In 2021, Ganfeng continued to expand. The company agreed to buy the shares it does not already own in Mexico-focused Bacanora Lithium (LSE:BCN) for US$264.5 million; it also bought a stake in a lithium mine in Mali for US$130 million, as well as a salt lake in China for 1.47 billion yuan. In addition, it offered to buy Argentina-focused Millennial Lithium (TSXV:ML,OTCQX:MLNLF) for up to C$353 million.
Market cap: US$26.51 billion
Albemarle is one of the largest lithium producers in the world, with 5,000 employees and customers in 100 different countries worldwide. Besides lithium, Albemarle produces bromine and provides refining solutions and chemistry services for pharmaceutical firms.
When Albemarle closed its acquisition of Rockwood Holdings in early 2015, it became a heavyweight in the lithium space. The company owns lithium brine operations in Clayton Valley near Silver Peak in the US, as well as in the Salar de Atacama in Chile; as mentioned above, it also owns a 49 percent stake in the massive hard-rock Greenbushes mine.
In 2018, Albemarle announced that its request for an increase in its lithium quota had been approved by Corfo, a Chilean governmental organization. The company is now authorized to produce up to 145,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent per year in Chile until 2043.
Albemarle later signed a deal to invest US$1.15 billion in a joint venture with Mineral Resources (ASX:MIN), which will own and operate the Wodgina hard-rock lithium mine in Western Australia. In 2019, the company began construction at the Kemerton lithium hydroxide processing plant, near Perth.
Currently, the company’s La Negra III and IV processing facilities in Chile are in commissioning, while construction at the Australia-based Kemerton I plant should be finished by the end of 2021.
3. Tianqi Lithium
Market cap: US$24.39 billion
Lithium producer Tianqi Lithium, a subsidiary of Chengdu Tianqi Industry Group, headquartered in China, is the world’s largest hard-rock lithium producer. The company has resource and production assets located in Australia, Chile and China.
In 2012, Tianqi beat out Rockwood Holdings to take control of Talison Lithium, which in turn controls the Greenbushes mine in Australia. However, it subsequently sold a 49 percent interest in Talison to Rockwood Holdings, which, as mentioned, is now owned by Albemarle.
Tianqi paid US$209.6 million for a 2.1 percent stake in SQM in September 2016, which it then boosted to 23.77 percent for US$4.07 billion in 2018.
The company has also developed a lithium hydroxide plant in the Kwinana Industrial Area, located south of Perth in Western Australia. In 2019, Tianqi decided to put its expansion plans for its Kwinana lithium hydroxide plant on hold to focus on steady production first. The facility launched production in September 2019, with ramp up estimated to take 12 to 18 months.
In 2020, Tianqi sold a stake in its Australian assets to IGO in a $1.4 billion deal, giving a boost to the financially troubled Chinese company.
Market cap: US$13.2 billion
SQM claims to have a leading position in lithium and derivatives, holding a 19 percent share of the market, with offices in over 20 countries and customers in 110 nations across the globe. The firm has five business areas, ranging from lithium to potassium to specialty plant nutrition.
SQM’s primary lithium business is in Chile. The company has spent plenty of time butting heads with Chile’s Corfo over its leases in the Salar de Atacama, where the company’s lithium brine operations are located. After many failed meetings, SQM and Corfo came to a resolution in mid-January 2018.
In 2016, SQM and Lithium Americas announced they would develop the Cauchari-Olaroz lithium project in Argentina via a joint venture, marking SQM’s first investment in the raw material outside of Chile. Two years later, Ganfeng purchased SQM’s stake in the project.
Outside of South America, SQM is developing the Mount Holland lithium project in Australia, which is known as one of the world’s largest hard-rock mining deposits, in a joint venture with Wesfarmers (ASX:WES,OTC Pink:WFAFF), which took over Australian lithium-mining company Kidman Resources.
5. Pilbara Minerals (ASX:PLS)
Market cap: US$4.47 billion
Australia-listed Pilbara Minerals operates its 100 percent owned Pilgangoora lithium-tantalum asset in Western Australia. The operation consists of two processing plants: the Pilgan plant, located on the northern side of the Pilgangoora area, which produces a spodumene concentrate and a tantalite concentrate, and the Ngungaju plant, located to the south, which produces a spodumene concentrate.
The company, which declared commercial production in 2019, has partnerships with Ganfeng Lithium, General Lithium, Great Wall Motor Company (OTC Pink:GWLLF,HKEX:2333), POSCO (NYSE:PKX), CATL (SZSE:300750) and Yibin Tianyi.
Earlier this year, Pilbara Minerals completed the acquisition of Altura Lithium following a cash payment of US$155 million. The company is working on an updated combined Pilgangoora project JORC mineral resource, which is scheduled for release in the September quarter of 2021.
6. Livent (NYSE:LTHM)
Market cap: US$3.57 billion
Livent, which was spun off from FMC in 2018, employs more than 900 people throughout the world and operates manufacturing sites in the US, England, India, China and Argentina.
The company operates its lithium business in the Salar del Hombre Muerto in Argentina, where it has been extracting lithium for more than 20 years. The lithium carbonate produced serves as the feedstock for Livent’s downstream lithium hydroxide production. Livent is also currently producing qualified battery-grade lithium hydroxide in both the US and China.
Earlier this year, Livent resumed its capacity expansion projects in the US and Argentina, backed by the execution of recent long-term supply agreements, an improving market outlook and continued local government and community support.
7. Orocobre (ASX:ORE,TSX:ORL)
Market cap: US$3.57 billion
Argentina-focused Orocobre is an industrial chemicals and minerals company operating a portfolio of lithium, potash and boron projects and facilities in the Puna region of Northern Argentina.
The company has built, in partnership with Toyota Tsusho (TSE:8015) and the investment division of the Jujuy government, the first large-scale, greenfield, brine-based lithium project in about 20 years at the Salar de Olaroz with planned annual production of 42,500 tonnes of low-cost lithium carbonate.
Additionally, Orocobre and Toyota Tsusho have commenced construction of a 10,000 tonne per annum lithium hydroxide plant in Naraha, Japan.
In 2021, Orocobre made news headlines after it announced its merger of equals with Australia’s Galaxy Resources (ASX:GXY,OTC Pink:GALXF) in a AU$4 billion deal to create a top five lithium company.
Galaxy has been advancing plans to develop the Sal de Vida lithium brine and potash project in Argentina. It also owns the Mount Cattlin mine in Western Australia, which is currently producing spodumene and tantalum concentrate, as well as the James Bay lithium pegmatite project in Canada.
Other lithium-mining companies
Aside from the world’s top lithium producers, a number of other companies are producing this key electric vehicle raw material.
This is an updated version of an article first published by the Investing News Network in 2016.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Priscila Barrera, currently hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.
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