A handful of countries dominate the market for producing lithium - a mineral that has grown in stature in recent years due to its use in batteries

Salar de Atacama Chile Wikimedia Commons Francesco Mocellin

Salar de Atacama lithium salt flats in Chile (Credit: Francesco Mocellin/Wikimedia Commons)

Lithium-producing countries have grown in stature on the world mining stage in recent years, as interest in the silvery-white metal grows in tandem with demand for the electric vehicles and consumer electronics whose batteries it powers.

But as well as the lithium-ion batteries for which it has grown in popularity, the highly reactive and flammable alkali mineral – sometimes referred to as “white gold” – is also used in ceramics and glass, lubricating greases, polymer production, and air treatment.

According to the latest figures from the US Geological Survey (USGS), global lithium production in 2018 reached around 85,000 tonnes – up from 69,000 in the previous year.

Continued exploration efforts have seen global lithium resource estimates reach 62 million tonnes – a significant proportion of which are located in South America’s “lithium triangle” – an area encompassing Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.

Here we take a look at some of the biggest lithium-producing countries around the world.

 

Five of the biggest lithium-producing companies in the world

Australia

With a production of 51,000 metric tonnes in 2018, Australia occupies top spot in the list of top lithium-producing countries.

New spodumene facilities were ramped up throughout the year to boost production from 40,000 tonnes in 2017.

A significant amount of Australia’s lithium reserves are found in the Greenbushes area at a significant project operated by Talison Lithium.

In 2012, Talison expanded its Greenbushes Lithium Operations plant in Western Australia, increasing production capabilities to around 100,000 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent annually.

 

Chile

The South American country is second on the list of top lithium-producing countries – and in 2018 produced 16,000 tonnes of the metal – up from 14,200 the year before.

The Salar de Atacama salt flat in Chile is home to one of the world’s biggest lithium reserves – with the mineral contained within brine deposits, as opposed to hard rock mines.

SQM is one of the leading producers of lithium in Chile and in May 2018 announced plans to produce nearly 180,000 metric tonnes of lithium in Salar de Atacama salt flat by early 2021, according to Reuters.

In the same month, China’s Tianqi Lithium entered into an agreement with Nutrien to acquire a 24% stake in Chile’s SQM for $4.07bn.

 

China

Lithium production in China hit 8,000 tonnes in 2018, increasing from 6,800 tonnes the previous year.

As a major consumer of lithium resources for electronics manufacturing, China has a significant interest in ensuring it has substantial and reliable lithium supplies.

The country holds millions of tonnes of the mineral at the Zhabuye salt lake in Zhongba County, the mining licence for which is held by Tibet Shigatse Zhabuye Lithium High-Tech.

Tianqi Lithium owns 20% stake the company, according to its website.

lithium producing countries
Salar de Uyuni lithium deposits in Bolivia (Credit: Dan Lundberg/Flickr)

Argentina

Part of the famed “lithium triangle”, Argentina increased its production of the resource from 5,700 tonnes in 2017 to 6,200 tonnes in 2018.

The Salar del Hombre Muerto district in the country holds significant amounts of lithium brines.

In August 2018, Galaxy Resources entered into an agreement with POSCO to sell a package of tenements on the northern basin of Salar del Hombre Muerto for $280m.

In the same month, Argosy Minerals started production of battery-grade lithium carbonate (LCE) from its Rincon Lithium Project located in Salta Province, Argentina.

USGS said that Argentina’s leading lithium producer increased its lithium hydroxide production capacity by 80% in 2017 due to a growth in demand from the electric vehicle industry.

 

Zimbabwe

The only African nation on this list, Zimbabwe produced 1,600 tonnes of lithium in 2018 – doubling the previous year’s total.

Located in southern Zimbabwe in Masvingo Province, the Bikita mine is one of the major lithium mines in the country, while the Arcadia Lithium project is another important asset.

Located about 38 kilometres east of Harare in the Highveld, the Arcadia Lithium Project is in close proximity to the Arcturus gold mine.

Arcadia spans across more than 14 square kilometres and features some historical lithium and beryl workings within an existing agricultural area.