Global demand for lithium is on the rise thanks to its use in electric car batteries.
That could mean big business for Chile, which has near 23 per cent of the world’s reserves. A leftover dictatorship-era statute, however, threatens to stand in the way.
Traffic is still slow at the seven electric car charging stations that Chilectra, a local electricity provider, has set up around Santiago. But that will no doubt change, which is why the company is planning to install 20 more such stations – outside of hotels, office buildings and in residential developments.
“By 2020, at least 10% of the cars in major cities will be electric,” says Jean Paul Zalaquett, Chilectra’s innovation director.
What the owners of these cars don’t know is that the batteries used to store that electricity also contain a local product: lithium carbonate. According to studies carried out by the Chilean Copper Commission, a government agency, Chile has close to 23% of the world’s lithium reserves. Neighboring Argentina and Bolivia are also lithium-rich. Together the three countries boast more than half of the world’s reserves.
Right now, Chile produces close to 40% of the approximately 140,000 tons of lithium carbonate sold annually around the world. Overall, the global lithium industry is worth some $800 million. Thanks to an expected boom in electric cars, the industry is likely to grow rapidly in the coming years – with annual production tripling by 2030, according to projections by the consulting firm Signumbox.
“It has already grown by between 5% and 7% over the past decade, basically because of [electric] car batteries,” says Daniela Desormeaux, Signumbox’s general manager.
But Chile also faces a real risk of falling behind in an industry it has long led. In the late 1970s, the military government of Augusto Pinochet classified lithium as a “strategic material” because of its possible uses in nuclear fission. The classification has kept potential investors at arms length by prohibiting the state from negotiating lithium extraction concessions.
As a result, lithium mining has been limited in Chile to just one location – in the northern salt flats of the Atacama desert. Only two companies operate there: SQM, a Chilean firm that produces 24% of the world’s lithium; and Chemetall, a German company that accounts for 16% of global production. Both companies, whose concessions predate the restrictions, rent the desert land from the Chilean state.
Other countries with substantial lithium reserves are developing new mining projects at a much faster clip. Argentina has 15 such products in the works. Chile has fewer than five. And as the lithium industries develop in neighboring Argentina and Bolivia, Chile could also be eclipsed in terms of overall reserves.
“The Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia are much bigger than [the salt flats] in the Atacama. Plus the laws are better there,” says Roberto Mallea, an expert from the Center of Mining and Metallurgical Research (CIMM) in Santiago. “And in Argentina there are numerous unexplored salt flats.”
A backdoor approach
In order to strip lithium of its “strategic material” label, and thus authorise the state to issue extraction concessions, the Chilean government would have go through Congress, which could create major delays. To sidestep the problem, the government has instead floated the possibility of auctioning off so-called Special Operation Contracts, or CEOLs, which are usually associated with oil and gas extraction. CEOLs would be available only to companies that already possess mining rights, such as Li3 Energy, a Chile/U.S./South Korean firm with rights over part of Chile’s Maricunga salt flats.
This potential “back-door” approach is favored by the current Chilean government, led by billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera. “We have 1,500 years worth of lithium, but in order to participate in the world market, we need to be more competitive,” says Pablo Wagner, Chile’s undersecretary of mining. “Before, Chile had a 50% market share. Now we’re at about 41%. And if we don’t do anything, we’ll fall to 20%.”
Chile would also do well to develop on the technology end so that it can compete in the lucrative market for producing lithium derivatives. Value-added materials like lithium hydroxide and lithium cathodes, also in high demand for use in batteries, are much more sophisticated and thus fetch a far higher selling price than does simple lithium carbonate.
Some local firms are beginning to make headway in this direction. The Korean company POSCO, one of the owners of Li3 Energy, has the technology to produce these more expensive lithium derivatives. And SQM has teamed up with Japan’s Marubeni to set up an institution called the Center of Lithium Innovation (CIL), which operates within the University of Chile.
Jaime Alée, the CIL’s director, has an even bigger dream: develop an entire lithium battery industry in Chile. “One lithium battery for an electric car costs $20,000. Chile’s contribution to that right now is worth just $40,” he says. “By 2014, the global lithium industry will be worth roughly $1 billion. The [lithium] battery industry will be worth $25 billion.”