Lithium Outlook – The 3 Largest Lithium Brownfield Expansions

Lithium, the silvery-white metal set to fuel the oncoming electric vehicle boom, is produced from only a smattering of far-flung deposits.

Nine operations in Australia, Chile, and Argentina account for the vast majority of global lithium production. These three countries account for 90% of the world’s proven and probable lithium reserves.

Since it takes eight to 10 years to build a lithium mine from scratch most of the near-term supply growth will come from expansions of existing production facilities.

Rechargeable-battery manufacturers currently consume 46% of all the world’s lithium, according to Australian government estimates. By 2025, Swiss Resource Capital and Canaccord estimate the battery and accumulator sector — in association with EV manufacturers — will account for up to 75% of lithium consumption, bringing demand to 700,000 tons lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE).

With so few viable deposits and such large capital requirements — it takes eight to 10 years to build a lithium mine from scratch — most of the near-term supply growth will come from expansions of existing production facilities. In this article, we look at the three largest brownfield expansions currently in or close to development.

Greenbushes, Australia

The Greenbushes lithium mine, about 250 km (155 mi) south of Perth in Western Australia, is the world’s largest producing spodumene deposit. It has undergone several expansions over the past 30 years, with another on the way as operator Talison Lithium aims to keep pace with increasing global demand.

Talison, jointly owned by Tianqi Lithium [stock_market_widget type="inline" template="generic" color="default" assets="002466" markup="(SHE: {symbol} {currency_symbol}{price} ({change_pct}))" api="yf"] – Market Cap $3.81b, 51% share; and Albemarle [stock_market_widget type="inline" template="generic" color="default" assets="ALB" markup="(NYSE: {symbol} {currency_symbol}{price} ({change_pct}))" api="yf"] – M/C: $7.45b, 49% share) is planning an expansion that will double Greenbushes’ production to 9.5 million tons per year of spodumene, bringing production of lithium mineral concentrate to 2.3 Mtpa of lithium mineral concentrate, or around 195,000 LCE[i]. Western Australia’s Environmental Protection Authority recently approved the project, subject to certain conditions including the protection of endangered black cockatoos in the area. Commissioning is expected this year.

Tianqi’s contribution to the A$1 billion[ii] ($680 million) expansion will be A$516 million, the company reported as part of a now-lapsed bid to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The lithium concentrate produced by the process plant will be transported by truck to one of two lithium hydroxide production plants in Western Australia: Tianqi’s Kwinana plant, which is under construction; or Albemarle’s Kemerton plant, which is in planning.

Salar de Atacama, Chile

SQM [stock_market_widget type="inline" template="generic" color="default" assets="SQM" markup="(NYSE: {symbol} {currency_symbol}{price} ({change_pct}))" api="yf"] – M/C: $3.44b), full name Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile S.A, the world’s other major lithium producer alongside Albemarle and Tianqi Lithium, has its sole production facility in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. It is involved in a major joint-venture development in Australia[iii], but the expansion of its Chilean production remains the key to its growth strategy.

SQM produces lithium carbonate from brines extracted from the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile. Its lithium carbonate facility, located 230 km away near the port city of Antofagasta, had a production capacity of 70,000 Mtpa LCE at the end of 2018. SQM is preparing for expansion to 180,000 Mtpa LCE in future. The initial phase, which will bring capacity to 120,000 Mtpa LCE by the end of 2021, will cost SQM around $280 million.

Salar de Olaroz, Argentina

Most of the world’s lithium resources can be found in the dry Atacama Desert region shared by Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. While Chile is the major lithium producer in the region – and the world number two, behind Australia – Argentina also has two production facilities. One of these facilities, Salar de Olaroz, is about to undergo a major expansion.

Joint-venture partners Orocobre Limited [stock_market_widget type="inline" template="generic" color="default" assets="ORE" markup="(ASX: {symbol} {currency_symbol}{price} ({change_pct}))" api="yf"] [stock_market_widget type="inline" template="generic" color="default" assets="ORL" markup="(TSX: {symbol} {currency_symbol}{price} ({change_pct}))" api="yf"] – M/C $465 million) and Toyota Tsusho Corporation (a member of the Toyota Group) last year approved the expansion of lithium carbonate production capacity by 25,000 Mtpa, bringing total capacity to around 42,500 Mtpa LCE. The Salar de Olaroz expansion, due for commissioning in the second half of 2020, will produce technical-grade lithium carbonate, part of which will become feedstock for the proposed Naraha lithium hydroxide plant in Japan. Total capital expenditure for the expansion is expected to be $295 million, including $25 million contingency.

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Nadav Shemer
Nadav Shemer is a writer, researcher, and analyst specializing in mining, energy, innovation, and consumer finance. While at Mining Journal, he compiled the publication's inaugural list of the world's top 100 mining companies by revenue and reported on visits to mine sites in the U.S., Africa, and Europe. He has also worked at FCBI Energy, where his publications included a series of white papers on decommissioning of North Sea oil rigs and reports on petrochemicals construction costs. Address: 682 Indian Road, Toronto, Ontario, M6P 2C9. Phone: 416-721-8257.
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