Adept Economics Director Gene Tunny has spoken with a world-leading expert on lithium in Economics Explored episode 113. The expert is UK-based Lukasz Bednarski, a battery materials analyst and a former commodity trader. In his new book Lithium: The Global Race for Battery Dominance and the New Energy Revolution , Lukasz describes How a little-known mineral will affect our jobs and daily lives as much as, if not more than, AI or Big Data have done.
Lithium is a fascinating mineral. It is the third element on the periodic table and the lightest metal and solid (under standard conditions). Lithium has a range of uses including both non-rechargeable lithium metal batteries and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. The demand for lithium is expected to soar, given its role in what is described as the “new energy revolution”, and Australia is well-placed to benefit economically from increased demand.
Lithium and the new energy revolution
The modelling report for the Australian Government’s Long-Term Emissions Reduction Plan contains some very useful information and commentary on various technologies relevant to decarbonisation. One important technology is the lithium-ion battery and the modelling report notes on p. 20: ” Lithium-ion batteries are the cheapest form of grid-scale battery storage currently available. Costs are expected to fall further thanks to manufacturing scale up driven by the rapidly growing electric vehicles market.” There is a lot of excitement in industry about lithium, and let’s hope industry is right, so we can cheaply store all the new intermittent energy being generated by wind and solar, and we don’t end up with an unreliable electricity grid with regular brownouts and blackouts.
Australia – the world’s top lithium producer
As noted above, Australia is well-placed to respond to the soaring demand for lithium, as is the state of Queensland, where Adept Economics is headquartered.
In recent years, Australia and Chile have swapped places as Australia has aggressively developed its lithium reserves with production jumping nearly 170% in 2018 putting Australia in first place globally. In 2019, the world’s top five lithium producers were Australia (52.9%), Chile (21.5%), China (9.7%), Argentina (8.3%) and Zimbabwe (2.1%). Chile holds 55.5% of the world’s total lithium reserves with Australia following behind at 18.1%. Given the abundance of lithium reserves and the current status of lithium production, it is likely Australia and Chile will remain the world’s lithium-production superpowers for the foreseeable future.
The demand for lithium, particularly from Australia, is not going to wane in the near future. Supply-side constraints may mean higher prices particularly as electric vehicle demand starts to rise.
Potential for lithium mining in Australia and Queensland
There is certainly significant potential for additional lithium mining in Australia given our reserves. Australia is well placed to meet growth in lithium demand, with many hard-rock, pegmatite-hosted lithium resources which are largely in Western Australia. There are numerous companies mining or exploring for lithium in Australia, largely focused on Western Australia. These include the producing Greenbushes Mine, the newly or soon-to-be producing Pilgangoora, Mount Cattlin, Early Grey, Mount Marion and Bald Hill deposits, plus other deposits with significant lithium resources.
In 2017 Geoscience Australia estimated total lithium production to be at least 21.3 kt based on estimates by the Western Australian Government. According to Geoscience Australia “at a rate of production of 21.3 kt per annum, Australia’s current Ore Reserves of lithium are adequate for 79 years.”
In Queensland, Lithium Australia has substantially established ground in North Queensland through its Cape York, Amber and Croyden projects, covering a combined area of almost 5000 square kilometres. According to Lithium Australia “these highly prospective geological environments in the far north of the state have been identified through a detailed understanding of the geology of the area, as well as open-file data research.”
Private exploration company Strategic Metals Australia (SMA) claimed to have discovered a new lithium province in Georgetown, North Queensland. The deposit is 400 kilometres south-west of Cairns. According to exploration director Bradley Crighton, “the discovery opens up the potential for Queensland to become a significant miner and processor of Lithium salts for battery manufacture in the state”. However, considerable work is required to bring the discovery to production such as drilling, modelling, resource calculation and feasibility studies.
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