Over the past few years, global demand for lithium, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries, has spiked. Primary drivers for the rise in demand is associated to increased sales of electric vehicles, consumer mobile devices and stationary energy storage systems. These newly emerging products are only at the beginning of their product life-cycle which will ensure many decades of growth in demand for the white metal.
Lithium is primarily extracted either from lithium brines or salar. ‘Brine’ is water saturated with a high concentration of salts, such as that found in salt lakes. Concentrated brine water is extracted from below the earth’s surface and cycled through a pond evaporation process, which can take from 12-24 months; as the brine water begins to evaporate, lithium and other by-products are harvested, including potash and boron.
Today, primary exporting countries of lithium carbonate are Argentina and Chile. Nevada is also home to a sizable lithium brine project, which is the only lithium brine project in North America. Beyond lithium salt ponds, Australia is home to a meaningful amount of established lithium hard-rock operations.
The vast majority of South American lithium deposits are located in a region called the Puna Plateau. The Puna Plateau is an area of the Andean Mountains that reaches elevations of 4,000m and spans 1,800km across Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. It houses the largest proven deposit of lithium, referred to as the “The Lithium Triangle,” and consists of three major salt lakes: Salar de Atacama, Salar de Uyuni, and Salar de Hombre Muerto. The Puna Plateau is referred to as the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” as it holds approximately 70 percent of the global reserves, making it an attractive area for both junior exploration and large mining companies.
In the 1990s, a large investment of approximately $150 million by an American chemical company spurred interest in the Puna Plateau. In recent years, the region has become home to a large number of junior exploration companies on a mission to bring additional lithium production to market. However, Australia-based Orocobre has been the only company to bring new production capacity to the market, while each of the existing producers have moved to increase existing capacity. The following are three large and established lithium producers in the Puna Plateau:
- Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile SA (SQM)
- Albermarle Corp.
- FMC Corp.
SQM and Albermarle are the only two companies allowed to extract lithium brine under leases which date back to 1980s. SQM is focused on its 40,000 t/yr lithium brine facility located in Chile at the Salar de Atacama. Albermarle, which specializes in chemicals, purchased Rockwood Holdings. The deal gave the company access to two lithium brine projects in Chile. The first is a new state-of-the-art production plant located at La Negra, Antofagasta, Chile, and the second is Salar de Atacama, Chile.
FMC, a large and diversified multinational chemical company through their lithium division, has owned and operated a 17,000 t/yr lithium brine facility at the Salar del Hombe in Argentina.