Interest in lithium continues to grow due to the metal’s role in the lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars.
In total, about 56 percent of lithium produced goes toward battery production, but other industries also consume the metal. For example, 23 percent is used in ceramics and glass, while 6 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 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 producers are doing their best to meet rising demand from energy storage and electric vehicles — worldwide lithium supply rose roughly 23 percent from 2017 to 2018, coming in at 85,000 metric tons (MT) of lithium content last year, not including US production.
Read on for a brief overview of the nine countries that produced the most lithium in 2018. 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: 51,000 MT
Kicking off our lithium production by country list is Australia. It produced 51,000 metric tons of lithium content last year, up an impressive 11,000 metric tons from the year before. The over 21 percent increase has been attributed to two new spodumene operations that ramped up production in 2017, along with five additional spodumene operations that ramped up output in 2018.
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 operating mining area in Western Australia, having been in operation for over 25 years.
Australia also holds over 2.7 million metric tons 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: 16,000 MT
Chile was another of the world’s top producers in 2018, with its production increasing from 14,200 metric tons of lithium content in 2017 to 16,000 metric tons 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. SQM finally reached a deal over disputed royalties with Chilean development agency Corfo in January 2018, which expanded its production capacity. According to the company’s expectations, lithium demand will increase 20 percent in 2019.
Mine production: 8,000 MT
China came third for lithium production in 2018, beating Argentina by 1,400 metric tons. The Asian country saw its lithium supply grow to 8,000 metric tons last year from just 6,800 metric tons in 2018.
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 increased its output by 500 metric tons in 2018, achieving production of 6,200 metric tons.
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: 1,600 MT
For the first time in five years, Zimbabwe increased its production from 800 metric tons to 1,600 metric tons. The country’s privately owned Bikita Minerals is the only lithium producer, and allegedly holds the world’s largest-known lithium deposit at over 11 million tonnes, while three other miners are working towards production. Total reserves stand at 70,000 metric tons, 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: 800 MT
Portugal produces much less lithium than the five countries ahead of it on this list. Last year, it put out 800 metric tons of the metal, the same amount it produced in 2017.
Most of the country’s lithium comes from the Gonçalo aplite-pegmatite field. Despite this lithium producer’s comparatively low output, its lithium reserves stand at 60,000 metric tons. The country is set to launch a tender of lithium exploration licenses in 2019, with an aim to make Portugal Europe’s top lithium supplier for batteries used to power electric cars.
Mine production: 600 MT
The next largest lithium producer is Brazil, whose lithium production comes in at 600 metric tons, three times higher than in 2017. While lithium reserves in Brazil are small, the country does have lithium deposits in the Minas Gerais and Ceará areas. Again, its reserves, which stand at 54,000 metric tons, are more impressive than its output, so the country potentially has a long lifespan for lithium output at the current pace.
Mine production: 500 MT
Namibia made the top lithium production by country list for the first time in 2018, with its total lithium production reaching 500 metric tons. First lithium concentrates from the country were exported in Q2 last year from development company Desert Lion Energy (TSXV:DLI,OTCQB:DSLEF), an early stage producer focused on building Namibia’s first large-scale lithium mine.
9. United States
Mine production: unknown
In 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 five major lithium projects underway in the US, including Lithium Americas’ Thacker Pass lithium claystone project, Piedmont Lithium’s hard rock lithium project and Standard Lithium’s 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.