The Great, Fake Lithium Supply Scare

“But there’s not enough lithium for all those batteries- and now you’ll switch dependency to a few lithium supplier countries!” That is the claim less informed journalists and hacks often make when they need a counter point to balance their first article on the emerging, electrified transportation sector. Why do we care? Because if true would significantly affect the battery, transportation, grid storage and electronic appliance sectors. Let’s try a fact check:

1) Claim: Dependency on 2-3 countries for lithium (similar to oil dependency)
Fact:
False. This table from the USGS best answers this claim:

Country Reserves (000’s ton Li) Reserves Base(000’s ton Li)
Argentina 2,000 2,000
Australia 170 220
Bolivia NA 5,400
Brazil 190 910
Canada 180 360
Chile 3,000 3,000
China 540 1,100
Portugal NA NA
USA 38 410
Zimbabwe 23 27

Plus, ore deposits in these plus other countries bring the total to over 17.1 million tons of reserves.

2) Claim: Lithium is the sole material these sectors must have to advance.
Fact:
Yes and no. Shorter term most known batteries for next gen autos and electronics will use lithium (bar the also popular nickel metal hydrides.) Longer term- let us not ignore 15 start ups that are readying ultracapacitor break throughs, 27 manufacturers and 29 other companies that have recently developed ultracapacitor technologies plus 52 research institutions working on advancing ultracapacitor technology. We do concede however that lithium will play by far the largest role for at least the next 15 years.

3) Claim: All of the suppliers in the world won’t be able to keep pace with demand & thus prices will skyrocket.
Fact:
There are an estimated 17.1 million tons of contained Li in reserves worldwide. In 2008, total global demand was 100,000 tons and of course projected to grow significantly. Lithium can be recycled. Do the math with your own assumptions and it appears we have a few years before supply concerns arise. One may even want to account for new, future reserves of Li to be discovered.

Additionally- advances in nanotechnology as noted here, here and here are making the current battery chemistries that do incorporate lithium much more powerful, economic and robust.

Let’s make money: 77% of lithium carbonate currently comes from 3 companies which are SQM of Chile, Germany’s Chemetall and FMC of the USA. Talison Minerals, a private Australian firm, is the largest spodumene producer and accounts for about 23% of global contained lithium. However, only 15% of this production is sold into the lithium chemical markets via Chinese lithium carbonate converters. (Special thanks to Dundee Capital Markets for the above research, “Lithium- Hype or Substance?” October, 2009. )

Conclusion: If you are bullish on the technology advancing, you likely believe the improved economics offered by advanced lithium batteries will enable stronger investments in the related sectors of grid storage, consumer electronics, military applications and of course transportation. The sky is falling claims should not play a role in any related investment decisions.

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6 comments

  1. FOA · February 11, 2010

    Great post, Mr. Allan. Would love to see more like this; dispelling rumours form the naysayers. This could be a theme.

  2. Keith vans · February 15, 2010

    Correction:

    In a recent Reuters report widely circulating, I am quoted as saying that lithium reserves in Chile and Argentina are sufficient for billions of years.

    The sentence should have read that the reserves in the two countries are adequate for batteries for billions of motor vehicles.

    Keith Evans

  3. Pingback: Batteries, Lithium Ion and Auto « Clean Technology & Private Equity/ VC, Company and Fund Research
  4. Nakul · April 28, 2010

    Hi,

    How much of the lithium reserves is extractable lithium?

    Thanks
    Nakul

    • Sascha K · April 28, 2010

      Hey Nakul- not sure if I can give you any precise answer on this one. If you are interested in the area our friend Jay Roberge has started a linked-in group that focuses on rare-earth metals. see: http://www.linkedin.com/groups?home=&gid=2909272&trk=anet_ug_hm

      Hope this helps. May Jay or Brett can give you an answer?

      Thanks,
      Sascha

  5. Jay · June 3, 2010

    You can reach me at info at tehama dot com

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