Supplying Lithium Gets Trickier As Electric Revolution Looms

Hidden within the salt flats high in the Andes mountains of South America are vast deposits of the lithium that Elon Musk may need for his electric-car revolution. But extracting the mineral from brine ponds created by Orocobre Ltd. has proved more difficult than expected.

Bad weather and pump glitches meant production at the Olaroz facility in northern Argentina was 21 percent below Orocobre's initial target in the year through June. While things are getting back on track, Chief Executive Officer Richard Seville says the company "either underestimated the complexity or overestimated our capability."

Producers everywhere have struggled to keep up with demand as electric cars went from almost no sales a decade ago to more than half a million vehicles last year. The battery in a Model S from Musk's Tesla Inc. uses about 45 kilograms (100 pounds) of lithium carbonate. More mines are planned, but difficulties at Olaroz — the first new South American lithium mine in two decades — are limiting funding for new ventures in Argentina, home to the world's third-largest reserves.

"The uncertainty on the supply side is driving prices up and making investors nervous," said Daniela Desormeaux, CEO of Santiago-based lithium consulting firm SignumBOX. "We need a new project entering the market every year to satisfy growing demand. If that doesn't happen, the market will be tight."

Australia is the biggest lithium producer, though Chile and Argentina account for 67 percent of global reserves, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Extracting lithium from the salt flats that dot the arid northern regions of the South American countries is a lot easier and cheaper than digging underground for metals like copper. Producers just pump the brine solution into evaporation ponds, harvesting the mineral once the moisture is gone.

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Bad weather and pump glitches meant production at the Olaroz facility in northern Argentina was 21 percent below Orocobre's initial target in the year through June. While things are getting back on track, Chief Executive Officer Richard Seville says the company "either underestimated the complexity or overestimated our capability."

Producers everywhere have struggled to keep up with demand as electric cars went from almost no sales a decade ago to more than half a million vehicles last year. The battery in a Model S from Musk's Tesla Inc. uses about 45 kilograms (100 pounds) of lithium carbonate. More mines are planned, but difficulties at Olaroz — the first new South American lithium mine in two decades — are limiting funding for new ventures in Argentina, home to the world's third-largest reserves.

"The uncertainty on the supply side is driving prices up and making investors nervous," said Daniela Desormeaux, CEO of Santiago-based lithium consulting firm SignumBOX. "We need a new project entering the market every year to satisfy growing demand. If that doesn't happen, the market will be tight."

Australia is the biggest lithium producer, though Chile and Argentina account for 67 percent of global reserves, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Extracting lithium from the salt flats that dot the arid northern regions of the South American countries is a lot easier and cheaper than digging underground for metals like copper. Producers just pump the brine solution into evaporation ponds, harvesting the mineral once the moisture is gone.

Read Full Article