Lithium in South America - Statistics and Facts

Lithium, a silvery-white alkali metal discovered over two centuries ago – with usage ranging from glass and ceramics to mood disorder medication – has recently experienced a boom in popularity due to its utilization in ion-lithium batteries, the preferred power source for electric vehicles. In fact, this application accounted for more than half of worldwide end-usage of lithium in 2018. The increased demand has caused the price of lithium carbonate to soar throughout the past decade, causing the metal to be labelled the “white gold” or “petroleum of the future”. In terms of supply, South America, which holds more than 60 percent of lithium reserves worldwide, stands amongst the largest global players.

Chile is by far the largest lithium producer in the region, with an estimated output of nearly 20 thousand metric tons in 2019. Production is concentrated exclusively in Antofagasta, a region in the north of the country which, along with salt flats in Bolivia and Argentina, form the so-called “lithium triangle” in South America. Despite the overall increase in annual output, Chile hasn’t managed to keep up with the increase in global demand, losing significant share in worldwide production. This is at least partially related to the government’s historically strict regulations, which gave Chilean mining company SQM and U.S.-based Albemarle exclusive exploration rights in the country. As of 2019, however, other mining corporations have invested in Chile’s lithium projects.

In turn Argentina’s reserves, which are distributed between the provinces of Jujuy, Catamarca and Salta, have been a focus for foreign investment in recent years. Livent, a mining company based in the U.S. and formerly a subsidiary of FMC Corporation, as well as Australian Orocobre are the largest lithium carbonate producers in Argentina. The country’s annual production has almost doubled since 2015 and is set to keep growing in the present decade. By 2022, Argentina’s lithium production capacity is expected to have increased fivefold.

Bolivia completes South America’s “lithium triangle”. A new study has recently estimated the country’s lithium reserves at 21 million metric tons, more than twice what had been calculated in previous studies, thus making it the largest reserve in the world. However production, currently under exclusive governmental exploitation by state-owned Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos, is still in the pilot stage.

Finally, despite significantly smaller reserves, Brazil still ranks amongst the largest lithium producers worldwide. Until recently, Brazilian enterprise Companhia Brasileira de Lítio, operating in the state of Minas Gerais, was the only lithium producing company in the country. As of 2019, Sigma Mineração has also initiated production in its first lithium plant, and other exploration projects are under planning.

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Lithium in South America

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