Lithium 2024: A global quarterly perspective 

Following its fall from grace towards the back end of 2023, it seems there could be light at the end of the tunnel for the lithium market as a rally behind the vital battery metals begins to take shape. 

As shown by Trading Economics, lithium prices have begun to climb from their recent slump around the US$14,000 per tonne mark, closing at about US$16,186 per pound on 14 March 2024. Although it was only a day later the price fell back to roughly US$15,769 per tonne. 

As of 1 April 2024, lithium was trading at about US$14,867 per tonne. 

Industry executives polled by this news service all agree while a comeback is inevitable, it may not quite reach its previous “dizzying heights”, as Solis Minerals (ASX:SLM) Executive Director Matthew Boyes explains. 

“I think lithium will come back [but] I think we’re probably going to see a more sustained market. Hopefully we can get back into a holding pattern … [for an SC-6 product] and see what happens there. It makes doing business a lot easier.”

SC-6 has high lithium content and at one time was the primary source of lithium production. However, most companies tend to extract lithium from brines due to cost-effectiveness.

However, despite the challenging battery metals market Australia’s largest and most lucrative lithium mine Greenbushes has recorded almost a $6.3 billion profit last calendar year, a significant increase from 2022.

In its Top 10 Themes for 2024, Sprott Asset Management notes lithium’s underperformance is largely due to inventory destocking and lower-than-expected electric vehicle (EV) sales within what is a maturing market. Crucially, the EV slowdown was not an outright decline but a deceleration in strong growth.

According to the latest Australian Critical Minerals Prospectus, the global EV market is anticipated to grow annually by 26% through to 2030, as reported by Mining.com.au

As highlighted by the prospectus, the challenge remains for industries, public and/or private, which supply EVs and lithium-ion batteries to find a secure, consistent, and reliable source of lithium. 

There are only a few countries currently dominating the lithium market.

Six mineral operations in Australia, one mineral tailings operation in Brazil, 2 brine operations each in Argentina and Chile, and 3 mineral and 2 brine operations in China accounts for the majority of world lithium production.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports smaller operations in Brazil, Canada, China, Portugal, the US, and Zimbabwe also contribute to global lithium production.

“Owing to the rapid increase in demand and prices of lithium in 2022, established lithium
operations worldwide increased or were in the process of increasing production capacity.

The US Department of Energy selected 12 lithium-based projects funded with $1.6 billion from the 2022 US Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to support new commercial-scale domestic facilities to extract and process lithium, manufacture battery components, recycle batteries, and develop new technologies to increase US lithium reserves,” USGS reports.

According to the USGS, brine-based lithium sources are in various stages of development or exploration in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, China, and the US; mineral-based lithium sources at various stages of development or exploration occur in Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, Congo (Kinshasa), Czechia, Ethiopia, Finland, Germany, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Mali,
Namibia, Nigeria, Peru, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Thailand, the United States, and Zimbabwe; while lithium-clay sources are in various stages in Mexico and the US.

Aussie Aussie Aussie!

To the surprise of few in the industry, Australia remains a top player in the lithium market. The country accounted for 50% of global lithium extraction in 2022 and ranks second for the most resources. 

The Australian government’s latest Resources and Energy Quarterly for December 2023 forecasts a lithium spodumene production increase of 247,000 tonnes by 2025, bringing the nation’s production from 386,000 tonnes (2022) to 633,000 tonnes.   

Australia is also touted in the foreseeable future to bring almost 6% of refining to its shores by 2025, ranking 4th in the world.  

Nearly all of Australian lithium is hardrock and derived from spodumene deposits, however, the majority of which is processed overseas.  

In 2022 to 2023 the market saw record Australian exports of $20 billion, a ‘significant’ increase from the previous record of $5 billion in 2021 to 2022. This increase was driven by a near-tripling in prices over the period, as well as volumes of spodumene exports increasing 46%.

Excluding US production, global lithium production in 2022 increased by 21% to some 130,000 tons from 107,000 tons in 2021 in response to demand from the lithium-ion battery market and then increasing prices. Global consumption in 2022 was estimated to be 134,000 tons, a 41% increase from 95,000 tons in 2021.

Kwinana Lithium Hydroxide Refinery

A new frontier

Solis’s Boyes tells Mining.com.au Australia is host to a few companies to note such as Liontown Resources (ASX:LTR) — which the prospectus notes is one of Australia’s up and coming lithium producers — but one that has been hit due to the struggling market. 

He adds quality, location, and cost will dictate the emergence of new lithium projects in the foreseeable future.  

You’ve seen re-rating of companies such as Latin Resources (ASX:LRS), they’ve got 80 million tonnes in the ground and they’ve more than halved. You’re looking at Liontown, it’s smashed. So anything that the market thinks is going to be a high cost, like a third or fourth quarter old producer, they’re getting a pummelling because there’s not going to be that much margin in those assets anymore.

But if you just got a DMS product that you’re producing, and it’s a clean product, then you’re going to be miles ahead of anyone who has to float. You’re looking at things like the AVZ’s (AVZ Minerals) asset in the Congo [where they] just put out a resource of 800 million tonnes that is still growing. 

There’s going to be one to two billion tonnes there. And it just highlights the amount of lithium that is around. There’s no shortage of it. There’s just a shortage of people producing it.” 

Other notable potential producers include Atlantic Lithium’s (ASX:A11) Ewoyaa Lithium Project in Ghana, and Leo Lithium’s (ASX:LLL) Goulamina Project in Mali, as well as Patriot Battery Metals’ (ASX:PMT) Corvette Property in Canada.

Boyes’ estimates if all these assets come online in the next 5 years the market could see production increase by up to 2 to 3 times.

Solis Minerals secures acquisition of 22 lithium exploration licences for Borborema Project, Brazil

Vai Brasil!

Boyes says in Brazil, which houses Solis’s wholly owned Borborema Lithium Project, the company is poised to be a cornerstone of Brazil’s lithium supply chain. He explains if a potential rebound in the lithium prices were to occur in the near future, Brazil ticks all the boxes as an ideal region for junior explorers, developers, and producers. 

“I think definitely Minas Gerais has a lot of things in its favour. The mining ministry is very transparent. They’ve done a good job in revamping everything, and they’ve done a pretty good job of copying the infrastructure or basically the framework that’s in place in Western Australia.”

According to the USGS, Brazil produced 2,200 tonnes of lithium, and held 250,000 tonnes in reserves, in 2022. This is a far cry from Australia’s 61,000 tonnes produced and 6.2 million tonnes in reserves. But Boyes explains Brazil offers a quicker road to production than other lithium frontiers, such as Australia and Canada. 

“You can actually be producing, once you’ve got your resource up, in 3 years post your DFS (Definitive Feasibility Study), or 2.5 years post DFS. 

And there seems to be little issues with getting these things permanent. As long as you follow a preset route of permitting and do that permitting process correctly, I think you’re going to get the support. 

Latin [Resources] received massive support from the government in Minas Gerais, helping them actually fast track the project to production.

These countries, Brazil especially, loves to see mining projects come online. That’s why Brazil is attractive. It’s looked good the last 2 or 3 years in Brazil, [i’ve] seen a couple of hundred million tonnes of bearing pegmatite delineated, and I think in the next few years, there’ll be a couple of hundred more.

It’s a big area, there’s very little exploration to date, and I think there’s a lot of positives. And you’re not up in the middle of nowhere in Canada, having to fly choppers in with drill rigs on them and high costs. You’re down in sunny Brazil and without good access, and it’s just an easier place to work.”

Boyes believes Brazil has much to offer, so much so he tells Mining.com.au the company is still looking at multiple assets in Minas Gerais, as well as within different parts of the country at the moment. However, he is not oblivious to the aforementioned market fundamentals plaguing the lithium space. 

“The issue that we’re having at the moment is obviously trying to find assets which reflect the market pricing at the moment, because these assets in Brazil still have the old price tags on them and things have changed significantly. And so what we need to do is be able to get into a position with a vendor who has realistic expectations on the value of the assets.

Unfortunately, at the moment in Brazil, that’s not happened. They haven’t quite figured out that the market’s not there and it’s not going to be there for a couple of years.”

So far in 2024, this news service has reported on several companies looking to expand their horizons into this promising prospect. For example, nickel and copper explorer Armada Metals (ASX:AMM) in January this year completed due diligence to obtain lithium exploration projects in Minas Gerais.  

Another is Si6 Metals (ASX:SI6), which around the same time received shareholder approval to acquire a 50% interest in 4 projects in Brazil from Melbourne-based privately held company Firefox Metals.

However, Brazil’s attraction extends beyond the confines of the lithium market. In February 2024, Enova Mining (ASX:ENV) entered into a binding option agreement with private individual Rodrigo de Brito Mello to acquire a sole 100% interest in the CODA rare earth prospect in Minas Gerais.

Another rare earths player which sees the value in Brazil is Australian Mines (ASX:AUZ), which ‘significantly’ increased its rare earths exploration footprint with 17 new tenements comprising 51,000 hectares in Bahia, northeast Brazil.

This should come as no surprise given Latin America continues to attract the largest share of the global exploration budget, as outlined by S&P Global’s World Exploration Trends 2024report. The report highlights Latin America’s budget was up 2% year-over-year to $3.38 billion, which was ‘greatly contributed to’ by the region’s lithium exploration. 

Yearly gains on lithium exploration in 2023 increased to $102 million, or 86% from 2022, the report notes.

Despite positive projections of the Brazilian lithium market, Greenwing Resources (ASX:GW1) Executive Director Rick Anthon tends not to agree. 

Vamos Argentina

Speaking to Mining.com.au on the sidelines of this year’s Brisbane Mining and Investors Conference, Anthon says it will be Argentina that will emerge as the top lithium jurisdiction.  Which is precisely where one can find the company’s flagship San Jorge Project, sitting in the world renowned ‘Lithium Triangle’. 

The Lithium Triangle is unique because of the existence of the large-scale and large salt lake brine deposits, and that’s essentially where you find the lithium. So there’s nowhere else in the world outside of Argentina and Chile that has a particular geology for sure,” he says.

The Lithium Triangle is unique because of the existence of the large-scale and large salt lake brine deposits, and that’s essentially where you find the lithium

The Executive Director adds it is here where other notable ASX-listed explorers and developers have set up shop, delineating up to a cumulative total of 45 million tonnes of lithium. 

“Lake [Resources] (ASX:LKE) [has] got 4 million tonnes of resources, LPI’s (Lithium Power International) (ASX:LPI) has got 2 million tonnes, Galan [Lithium] (ASX:GLN) ahs got 6 to 8 million tonnes of resources, Arcadium [Lithium] (ASX:LTM) has got a couple of projects which between them have between 25 million tonnes in resources, and Lithium America (TSX:LAC) has about 6 million tonnes of resources.”  

As such, Greenwing believes it is set up ‘within the world’s most prolific lithium mining jurisdiction’.

“As far as the argument is about corporate governance and country risk, Argentina’s got some issues which we’re all well aware of. Is it any riskier than Brazil? I don’t think so.” says Anthon. 

Anthon’s sentiments are shared by S&P Global, which forecast in August 2023 that Argentina was cast as the promising supplier to leapfrog Chile in the short-term due to its pipeline of lithium projects. Of the 10 hard rock projects set to come online, Africa and Australia host the lion’s share while 5 of 6 brine projects reside in Argentina.

The 10 hard rock projects, including the Mt Holland Lithium hydroxide conversion project, account for 80% of the expected capacity increase. S&P Global reports the hard rock mines are scattered across the world, with 4 projects in Africa and 3 in Australia. The firm expects 7 of the projects would add a total of 159,721 tonnes of LCE capacity in 2023, and the remaining nine projects to add 408,219 tonnes in 2024, ‘bringing more hope for easing of market tightness’.

As previously mentioned, over the past few years Australia’s lithium mining industry has continued to be a major player in the global lithium space. 

However, with an increasing interest in Latin America’s potential to fuel a vital market seems to be becoming more apparent, the only question now is which will come out on top, Brazil? Or Argentina?

Or is Australia destined to solidify its place as the centre of the lithium space?

Write to Adam Drought at Mining.com.au

Images: Kwinana Lithium Hydroxide Refinery, iStock, Greenwing, & Solis Minerals
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Written By Adam Drought
Born and raised in the UK, Adam is a sports fanatic with an interest in Rugby League and UFC/MMA. When not training in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Adam attends Griffith University where he is completing his final year of a Communication & Journalism degree.