Interest in lithium continues to grow due to the metal’s role in the lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs).
In total, about 46 percent of lithium produced goes toward battery production, but other industries also consume the metal — 27 percent is used in ceramics and glass, while 7 percent goes to lubricating greases, to name a few of the other end uses for lithium.
As demand for the metal 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 producers are doing their best to meet rising demand — worldwide lithium production rose roughly 13 percent from 2016 to 2017, coming in at 43,000 MT last year.
Read on for a brief overview of the eight countries that produced the most lithium in 2017. If the EV market continues to grow, it’s likely that they will produce even more of the metal in years to come.
Mine production: 18,700 MT
Kicking off our largest lithium producers list is Australia. It produced 18,700 MT of the metal last year, up an impressive 3,300 MT from the year before. The 34-percent increase has been attributed to two new spodumene operations that ramped up production, along with strong sales.
Australia hosts the Greenbushes lithium asset, which is operated by Talison Lithium, a subsidiary jointly owned by Tianqi Lithium (SZSE:002466) and Albemarle (NYSE:ALB). Greenbushes is the longest continuously operating 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 — that’s just behind China, and of course, Chile. It is worth noting that most of the country’s lithium is exported to China as spodumene.
Mine production: 14,100 MT
Chile was another of the world’s top lithium producers in 2017, although its production decreased from 14,300 MT in 2016 to 14,100 MT last year. The US Geological Survey says the decline was likely the result of weather conditions that impacted the country’s brine production. Unlike Australia, where lithium is extracted from hard-rock mines, Chile’s lithium is found in lithium brine deposits.
The Atacama salt flat in Chile generates roughly half the revenue for SQM (NYSE:SQM), a top lithium producer in Chile. SQM finally reached a deal over disputed royalties with Chilean development agency Corfo in January 2018, which will impact its production moving forward. The Chilean government also recently gave Albemarle, another lithium powerhouse, permission to expand its lithium operations.
Mine production: 5,500 MT
Lithium producer Argentina decreased its output by 300 MT in 2017, achieving production of 5,500 MT. As with Chile, the US Geological Survey notes that the fall was likely due to heavy snowfall, which limited production at the country’s new brine operation.
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, while its reserves are sufficient for at least 75 years. At present, lithium mining in the country shows no signs of slowing down. According to Reuters, lithium carbonate production in Argentina will triple by 2019, and has the potential to grow even more if companies are successful in obtaining funding for their projects.
Mine production: 3,000 MT
China came fourth for lithium production in 2017, the same position it held the year before. The lithium producer saw its output grow to 3,000 MT last year.
While lithium production in China is comparatively low, it is the largest consumer of lithium due to its electronics manufacturing and EV industries. China accounts for 55 percent of global lithium-ion battery production, according to Fortune. That number is expected to grow in the years to come.
China now gets most of its lithium from Australia, but is looking to expand its lithium capacity in the future. In late 2017, “China’s appetite for lithium [was] on display in [a] Canadian takeover,” wrote the Financial Post in an article describing the investment of $265 million in a Canadian lithium exploration firm.
Mine production: 1,000 MT
For the fourth year in a row, lithium producer Zimbabwe maintained production of 1,000 MT. The country’s privately owned Bikita Minerals allegedly holds the world’s largest-known deposit of lithium, at over 11 million tonnes, but the company was recently the subject of a court battle. According to the US Geological Survey, the country’s total reserves stand at 23,000 MT.
Mine production: 400 MT
Portugal produces much less lithium than the five countries ahead of it on this list. Last year, it put out 400 MT of the metal, double its output from 2016.
Most of the country’s lithium comes from the Goncalo aplite-pegmatite field. Despite this lithium producer’s comparatively low output, its reserves are greater than Zimbabwe’s, at 60,000 MT. Miners may be onto this because 46 applications have reportedly been submitted to the Portuguese government to explore and extract lithium in the nation. If these are approved, investors may see production rates soar as those reserves are harvested sooner rather than later.
Mine production: 200 MT
The next largest lithium producer is Brazil, whose lithium production has come in at 200 MT three years running. While lithium reserves in Brazil are small, the country does have deposits in the Minas Gerais and Ceara areas. Again, its reserves are more impressive than its output, standing at 48,000 MT, so the country potentially has a long lifespan for lithium output at the current pace.
8. United States
Mine production: unknown
The final listing 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.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Amanda Kay, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.