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Commodities

China's electric-car push sparks gold rush for lithium

Companies chase deals with Chilean, Australian miners

Most of South America's lithium is harvested from salt flats.

GUANGZHOU/SAO PAULO -- China's aggressive promotion of electric vehicles has kicked off a global hunt for lithium, spurring record prices for the material vital to the production of batteries used in such cars.

Lithium race

"We must secure lithium resources to prepare for the era of electric vehicles," said Heyi Xu, chairman of Beijing Automotive Group. The company, in negotiations with Chilean economic development agency Corfo, proposes industrial development that incorporates lithium mining, battery production and electric vehicle assembly in Chile.

Top Chinese electric vehicle maker BYD is speaking with Chilean lithium producers, with plans for a direct investment, an executive from the company's regional headquarters told a local media outlet. Chinese lithium supplier Tianqi Group took a 2% stake in Chile's SQM, one of the world's largest producer of the light metal.

China consumes over 40% of the world's lithium but contains only 20% of total deposits, the U.S. Geological Survey says.

Chile alone possesses half the world's lithium, while South America as a whole controls two-thirds of global reserves. Yet the region's supply is underutilized. Brine from South America's salt flats leaves behind lithium ripe for harvest after evaporation. But the process is time-consuming compared with operations in Australia, where lithium is mined and refined. This efficiency makes Australia the largest lithium supplier, with some 40% of total output despite containing just 10% of all deposits.

Chinese companies naturally are eyeing Australia as well. Great Wall Motor, which began negotiations to jointly produce electric vehicles with BMW, decided to take a 3.5% stake in Australia's Pilbara Minerals to gain rights for lithium once mining begins in 2018. Tianqi also purchased Australian miner Talison Lithium.

Battery hungry

Beijing's automobile policy triggered the newfound appetite for lithium. China revealed plans in April to increase sales of so-called new-energy vehicles from 500,000 in 2016 to as many as 7 million by 2025.

At the end of September, Beijing also announced requirements that new-energy vehicles account for a certain percentage of each automaker's sales in the country starting in 2019. The global market for batteries used in such green cars reached 1.4 trillion yen ($12.4 billion) in 2016, and is forecast to hit 6.6 trillion yen in 2025, market research firm Fuji Keizai says.

Chinese companies are not the only ones that smell an opportunity. Japanese conglomerate Kowa Group snared just over a 2% stake in SQM. Australian-British mining company Rio Tinto also is believed to be targeting SQM for an investment. Trading house Toyota Tsusho holds lithium concessions in Argentina, while Hanwa invested in a Canadian company planning to produce lithium in Mexico.

Benchmark lithium carbonate prices climbed as high as 159,000 yuan ($24,000) per ton in mid-November, says market researcher Asian Metal, surpassing the April 2016 peak when an influx of speculative money sent prices soaring.

Despite the rush to develop next-generation lithium batteries, the technology is not expected to be available until after 2020.

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