China continues to outpace US in race for green energy minerals

May 1, 2019

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports in its annual review of mining (published in the May issue of Mining Engineering) that the United States is more than 50 percent reliant on foreign imports for 48 non fuel mineral commodities and 100 percent reliant for 18 of those.

The problem is exacerbated when it comes to keeping pace with China in the production and sale of electric vehicles. Lithium is one of the materials needed for the green revolution and while both Chinese and U.S.-based companies have invested heavily in lithium mining projects in Chile, Australia and Argentina, some of the world’s top producing nations, China has also invested eight times more in its domestic production than has the United States.

This raw materials gap is real concern that was scheduled to be discussed at a May 2 meeting in Washington, D.C. Bloomberg reported that the meeting was expected to draw government officials, carmakers, mining companies and consultants on the need for streamlining the U.S. permit process for new lithium projects and stockpiling purchases.

The U.S. controls only about 13 percent of the global lithium cell production capacity, with no growth expected, according to BloombergNEF. China now controls about two-thirds of that industry and BNEF is forecasting it could grow to about 73 percent by 2021. And China has made moves to add to that production.

China’s Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium Co. acquired 37.5 percent of the Cauchari-Olaroz lithium project in Argentina, which is set to start producing in 2021. Tianqi Lithium Corp. paid $4 billion for a 24 percent stake in Soc. Quimica & Minera de Chile and the same company is part of the Talison joint venture, which controls the giant Greenbushes lithium mine in Australia, Bloomberg reported.

The meeting in Washington is hosted by Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, an industry consultant that specializes in the lithium-ion battery supply chain. In testimony before the U.S. Congress in February, the firm’s leader, Simon Moores, warned that the U.S. current role in the supply chain was being “outflanked” by China.

"There’s no reason why companies can’t raise capital and build and operate lithium mines in the U.S," Berry said. "The permitting process can be somewhat longer in the US relative to other parts of the world, but with so much focus on sustainability and transparency of the supply chain, environmental safeguards are a must."

But with demand for lithium set to boom from above 270 kt/a (300,000 stpy) to a 907 kt (1 million st) by 2025, mining companies need to grow fast and they prefer to do so in jurisdictions they know well. Albemarle, the only company producing lithium in the U.S., said in a written answer to questions it is focusing on expanding current operations in Australia and Chile.

No lithium mines are expected to start producing in the U.S. over the next three years and no substantial lithium production is set to hit global markets within the next five years, according to Bloomberg Intelligence chemicals analyst Christopher Perrella.

Still, some junior mining companies are looking to build new mines over the medium and long term. Vancouver-based Lithium Americas Corp is hoping to have permits approved for its Thacker Pass project in Nevada in 2020. Construction of the mine, with an initial annual capacity of 27 kt (30,000 st), could start next year if the company can raise the $581 million needed to build it.



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