With the rising tide of battery electric vehicles making a splash all across the world, the most coveted natural resource needed to power our vehicles is no longer petrol but a mineral called ‘lithium’. While it’s debatable whether lithium is the most important element found in a lithium-ion battery, its extensive mining across certain global hotspots has come under heavy criticism.
The very process of mining lithium is not only energy-intensive and polluting, it may also be linked with destabilising the ecosystem nearby due to extensive saltwater depletion from the edge of the ‘salars’ through which lithium is extracted. Apart from being used in EV batteries, lithium is also used in the production of glass, ceramics while also being used in rocket fuel etc. However, it’s because of the advent of battery EVs that the global production of lithium has gone up by 335% in the last 10 years.
While more research is being conducted on the possible side-effects of large-scale lithium mining, a few countries have emerged as the largest producers of lithium whose collective output annually rakes in 85,000 tonnes of lithium.
With an estimated 42,000 tonnes of lithium produced in 2019, Australia by far, remains the biggest supplier of lithium. While it is only the fifth largest reserve of lithium in the world, the country, thanks to large-scale extraction projects like the Greenbushes Lithium Mine in Western Australia, is billed as the largest lithium mining project in the world. Most of Australia’s lithium is supplied to China, which remains, to date, its biggest market.
A key part of the formidable lithium triangle comprising Argentina and Bolivia, Chile remains the third largest reserve of the element in the world and its second-biggest producer. While its reserves are estimated to be around 9 million tonnes, Chile’s annual production amounts to roughly 18,000 tonnes (as of 2019). According to a report by NSEnergy, the Salar de Atacama remains the motherlode for lithium extraction in Chile, with several lithium-mining companies having set up shop there.
According to BloombergNEF, China controls 80% of the world’s lithium refining and 77% of the world’s cell capacity. Despite being one of the largest producers of lithium, China is also its single largest consumer. For this reason, China imports a considerable amount of its lithium, particularly from Australia.
The fourth-largest lithium producing country in the world, Argentina is also the country with the second-largest lithium reserve (the largest being Bolivia with an estimated 21 million tonnes of data). However, political instability and lack of proper industrial infrastructure have kept Argentina from being the top producer in the world.
USAYou would think, with the likes of the Tesla Gigafactory first cropping-up in the US, the country does not rank in the top producers' list, beaten by the likes of Zimbabwe and Portugal. Yet, given the fact that America birthed the modern lithium-ion battery electric, it must feature on any lithium or Ev related list. Most of its lithium comes in the form of imports from Chile and Argentina, even though it has the fourth largest lithium reserve in the world. At present EV makers like Tesla are working on ensuring that the country’s lithium demands, particularly for the EV industry, are met through domestic sourcing. According to a report by CNBC, the U.S is looking at a lithium battery shortage in the near future, with local players ramping up production.