Chinese authorities have announced the discovery of new large deposits of lithium ore in the wilderness of China’s southwestern Yunnan province.

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China’s new lithium discovery a plus for Beijing’s EC drive

Preliminary estimates supplied by geologists with the Chinese Academy of Sciences have put the size of the new discovery at no less than five million metric tonnes.

The new deposits in a basin in Yunnan would have the potential to shed China’s reliance on imported ore and accelerate Beijing’s electric vehicle (EV) drive. The report noted that explorations in Yunnan found around 340,000 tonnes of carbonate lithium ore in a two to 16-metre bed within an area of 7.2 square kilometres.

Additionally, citing a government report, the South China Morning Post reported that “a 15-year marathon research project led by the Academy ultimately bore fruit with a cost-effective technique to extract lithium from other minerals using a complicated electronic membrane filtering process”.

Even though China enjoys large lithium reserves, most of them lie beneath salt lake beds in the wilderness of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Fragile ecosystems on the highland dubbed ‘the roof of the world’, along with the region’s lack of supporting infrastructure, have forced Chinese firms to take time to mine the metal, until this recent breakthrough.

The metal that also fuels the world’s drive to green transportation is extracted from brine, but experts say separating it from other elements present in the salts is costly.

The new process has further widened the markup enjoyed by Chinese suppliers, at a time when prices of lithium for export range from US$12,000 to US$20,000 per metric tonne. The new technique – already being adopted by several suppliers including state-owned Qinghai Lithium Industries – is expected to boost China’s annual output of lithium, and at the same time see a surge in EV manufacturing to meet the Chinese Government’s push to roll out approximately two million units powered by lithium by 2020.

As lithium-ion batteries continue their reign as the top batteries for EVs, latest data from the US Geological Survey shows that the world’s top lithium producers are scouring their lands and mines to cash in on the rising demand – worldwide lithium supply rose roughly 23 per cent from 2017 to 2018, coming in at 85,000 tonnes.

China – already home to some of the world’s largest battery manufacturers and also the largest importer of lithium, as shown by data from Benchmark Mineral Intelligence – is spending billions of dollars on purchasing mines in other lithium-rich nations such as Argentina and Australia, prompting the accusation that Beijing is hoarding its domestic sources while trying to control the global supply.

The latest such asset acquirer was Tianqi Lithium, based in the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu, which paid US$4.1 billion in May 2018 for a 24 per cent stake in Chile’s Sociedad Química y Minera, the world’s second-biggest producer of lithium.

The current tit-for-tat between China and US, however, may serve as an irritation to China’s meteoric rise to world dominance in the lithium sphere, with importers and traders, especially in the US, turning to recycling used battery cells to avoid becoming too reliant on China.


中国锂产量的激增提振了北京的电动汽车动力

中国当局宣布,在中国西南部云南省的荒野地区发现了新的大型锂矿床。

根据中国科学院地质学家提供的初步估计显示,新的锂的储量不少于500万吨。

云南盆地的新矿藏的发现将有可能使中国拜托对进口铁矿石的依赖,从而加快北京方面的电动汽车(EV)的开发。报告指出,这次云南的勘探中,在7.2平方公里的范围内一个2至16米的岩层中发现了约34万吨的碳酸盐岩锂矿。

此外,《南华早报》援引了一份政府报告称,“中科院领导的一项历时15年的马拉松式研究项目取得了最终成果,该项目采用了一种成本效益高的技术——通过利用复杂的电子膜过滤过程从其他矿物中提取锂”。

尽管中国拥有巨大的锂储存量,但其中大部分都位于青藏高原荒原的盐湖床之下。被称为“世界屋脊”的青藏高原生态系统脆弱,加上该地区缺乏配套基础设施,已近迫使中国企业花了长时间去开采稀土,这道最近才有了新的突破。

锂这种金属也是推动全球绿色交通发展的动力来源,它是从盐水中提取的,但专家也表示了,将锂与盐中存在的其他元素分离开来的成本非常高。

出口锂的价格从每吨1.2万美元到2万美元不等,发展新工艺进一步扩大了中国供应商的涨价空间。新的技术已经被几个供应商包括国有青海锂产业采用——预计将提高中国的年产锂量,同时也激增了电动车的制造。这一举动响应了中国政府推出的将在2020年生产出大约200万台锂电池政策。

锂离子电池将继续统治电动汽车的电池,美国地质调查局的最新数据显示, 全球最大的锂生产商正在挖掘自己的土地和矿山以填补他们日益增长的需求。2017年至2018年,全球锂供应增长了约23%,了8.5万吨。

中国已经拥有了一些世界上最大的锂电池制造商和进口国。但据资料显示,中国正斥资数十亿美元从阿根廷和澳大利亚等其他锂资源丰富的国家购买锂矿。这引发了外界的指责: 中国政府在试图控制全球锂供应的同时,却在囤积国内资源。

最新的此类资产收购者是总部位于四川省会成都的天齐锂业(Tianqi Lithium)。该公司于2018年5月斥资41亿美元收购了全球第二大锂生产商智利社会矿业公司(Sociedad Quimica y Minera) 24%的股份。

然而,在当前中美之间针锋相对的局面,随着进口和贸易商(尤其是美国)转向了回收废旧电池以避免变得过于依赖中国,中国可能会迅速崛起成为全球锂金属领域的主导力量。

*Article published in the July-September 2019 issue of The Asia Miner