Lithium is this year’s “hottest metal,” says USA Today, beating out gold, with another price spike expected this fall.
There are no exchange reference prices for lithium as there are for gold. The Financial Times cites estimates from the research group Mineral Intelligence that prices for lithium carbonate have risen more than 100% since 2005 and are expected to keep rising until 2018 when new mining operations come online.
Our trade data confirms the upward price trend for lithium in global trade over the last two years. Here, for example, is the data on the volume and price of China’s imports of lithium carbonate 2014 through first-quarter 2016:
Most of China’s lithium carbonate [HS283691] imports are sourced from Chile, which the US Geological Survey estimates holds 7.5 million tons of lithium in reserves and can tap an additional 7.5M tons in resources. The rest come from Argentina, which the USGS reports as holding 2M tons in reserves and 6.5M tons in resources.
China itself has 3.2M tons in reserves and 5.1M tons in resources, according to the USGS. Our global trade data shows that while China is a net importer of lithium carbonate, it is a net exporter of lithium oxide and hydroxide [HS282520], as is the United States (see the table below). Both lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide can be used to make cathodes for lithium-ion batteries.
The USGS in January estimated US lithium reserves at just 38,000 tons, but now sets US resources at 6.7M tons. That’s reassuring news as the USGS also notes that lithium “supply security has become a top priority for technology companies in the United States and Asia.”
Indeed, the stuff that made the batteries that made telephones mobile and computers portable, is now being used to run electric vehicles. As we wrote last fall [see Fueling Speculation: Gigafactory’s Need for Lithium], EV maker Tesla is using Li-Ion battery technology for its Powerwall system for storing solar energy (or off-peak-rate energy from the grid) to power homes. Analysts anticipating a growing role for lithium in the electrical grid are calling it “white petroleum.”
More data on lithium in global trade
We’ve put together a report on lithium in global trade that covers the volumes and values (US$/Mton) of US imports and exports of lithium carbonates and oxides, as well as Japan’s lithium oxides imports, South Korea’s lithium carbonates imports, Chile’s and Argentina’s lithium carbonates exports. Our Quick Look @ Lithium Trade report also includes USGS estimates of global lithium reserves and resources as well as the top ranked countries in lithium trade.
Click here to download the pdf report.