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Lithium Prices Surge on EV Demand from China

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lithium prices

Lithium Prices Surge on EV Demand from China

Amid growing conviction on the bright future of electric vehicles (EVs), the scramble for battery metals like lithium is just beginning.

By the first week of 2022, prices for lithium carbonate, a key ingredient in lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, reached a new high of 300,000 yuan or nearly $47,500 per ton in China.

The above graphic charts the exponential surge in both lithium prices and China’s EV sales between 2015 and 2021.

How Lithium Prices Changed in 2021

After brief spikes in 2016 and 2017, lithium prices were on a downtrend until 2021. With that context, it’s safe to say that the year’s 497% surge was nothing short of dramatic.

Here’s how lithium prices changed in 2021, on a quarterly basis:

DateLithium carbonate price per ton in China*% increase in 2021
January 01, 2021$7,328.900%
April 01, 2021$13,396.9082.70%
July 01, 2021$14,024.4091.40%
October 01, 2021$27,733.70278.50%
December 31, 2021$43,732.80496.70%

*Represents prices for battery-grade lithium carbonate. Converted from yuan to USD via xe.com as of Jan 19, 2022.
Source: TradingEconomics

As producers struggled to keep up with rising demand for battery-grade lithium carbonate, prices increased six-fold in 2021.

This rise was amplified in October when Tesla announced a switch to LFP batteries for all of its standard-range cars. Previously, Tesla only used LFP batteries for cars produced in China.

EV Batteries and the Resurgence of LFP Cathodes

Why did Tesla make the switch?

LFP was the initial cathode chemistry used in lithium-ion batteries for EVs in China, the largest market for EVs. Over time, consumer preferences for longer driving ranges drove manufacturers towards higher-density lithium nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) cathodes, which can manage longer distances on a single charge.

However, most of the cobalt used in NMC batteries comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where cobalt mining is associated with several humanitarian issues. These concerns, along with the high material cost of cobalt, prompted automakers to look at alternative cathode chemistries.

This has caused automakers like Tesla to turn back to LFP cathodes, which do not require cobalt and are relatively cheaper to produce.

Lithium’s Electric Future

According to BloombergNEF, global EV sales were on track to hit 6.3 million units in 2021—nearly double the total of 2020.

However, despite recent growth, EV adoption has a long way to go, with EVs making up just 4.3% of global auto sales in 2020. This suggests that the future is bright for battery metals like lithium, which will likely continue to be in high demand.

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Visualizing China’s Dominance in Battery Manufacturing (2022-2027P)

This infographic breaks down battery manufacturing capacity by country in 2022 and 2027.

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battery manufacturing capacity by country infographic

Visualizing China’s Dominance in Battery Manufacturing

With the world gearing up for the electric vehicle era, battery manufacturing has become a priority for many nations, including the United States.

However, having entered the race for batteries early, China is far and away in the lead.

Using the data and projections behind BloombergNEF’s lithium-ion supply chain rankings, this infographic visualizes battery manufacturing capacity by country in 2022 and 2027p, highlighting the extent of China’s battery dominance.

Battery Manufacturing Capacity by Country in 2022

In 2022, China had more battery production capacity than the rest of the world combined.

RankCountry2022 Battery Cell
Manufacturing Capacity, GWh
% of Total
#1 🇨🇳 China89377%
#2🇵🇱 Poland736%
#3🇺🇸 U.S.706%
#4🇭🇺 Hungary383%
#5🇩🇪 Germany313%
#6🇸🇪 Sweden161%
#7🇰🇷 South Korea151%
#8🇯🇵 Japan121%
#9🇫🇷 France61%
#10🇮🇳 India30.2%
🌍 Other71%
Total1,163100%

With nearly 900 gigawatt-hours of manufacturing capacity or 77% of the global total, China is home to six of the world’s 10 biggest battery makers. Behind China’s battery dominance is its vertical integration across the rest of the EV supply chain, from mining the metals to producing the EVs. It’s also the largest EV market, accounting for 52% of global sales in 2021.

Poland ranks second with less than one-tenth of China’s capacity. In addition, it hosts LG Energy Solution’s Wroclaw gigafactory, the largest of its kind in Europe and one of the largest in the world. Overall, European countries (including non-EU members) made up just 14% of global battery manufacturing capacity in 2022.

Although it lives in China’s shadow when it comes to batteries, the U.S. is also among the world’s lithium-ion powerhouses. As of 2022, it had eight major operational battery factories, concentrated in the Midwest and the South.

China’s Near-Monopoly Continues Through 2027

Global lithium-ion manufacturing capacity is projected to increase eightfold in the next five years. Here are the top 10 countries by projected battery production capacity in 2027:

RankCountry2027P Battery Cell
Manufacturing Capacity, GWh
% of Total
#1🇨🇳 China6,19769%
#2🇺🇸 U.S.90810%
#3🇩🇪 Germany5036%
#4🇭🇺 Hungary1942%
#5🇸🇪 Sweden1352%
#6🇵🇱 Poland1121%
#7🇨🇦 Canada1061%
#8🇪🇸 Spain981%
#9🇫🇷 France891%
#10 🇲🇽 Mexico801%
🌍 Other5236%
Total8,945100%

China’s well-established advantage is set to continue through 2027, with 69% of the world’s battery manufacturing capacity.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is projected to increase its capacity by more than 10-fold in the next five years. EV tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act are likely to incentivize battery manufacturing by rewarding EVs made with domestic materials. Alongside Ford and General Motors, Asian companies including Toyota, SK Innovation, and LG Energy Solution have all announced investments in U.S. battery manufacturing in recent months.

Europe will host six of the projected top 10 countries for battery production in 2027. Europe’s current and future battery plants come from a mix of domestic and foreign firms, including Germany’s Volkswagen, China’s CATL, and South Korea’s SK Innovation.

Can Countries Cut Ties With China?

Regardless of the growth in North America and Europe, China’s dominance is unmatched.

Battery manufacturing is just one piece of the puzzle, albeit a major one. Most of the parts and metals that make up a battery—like battery-grade lithium, electrolytes, separators, cathodes, and anodes—are primarily made in China.

Therefore, combating China’s dominance will be expensive. According to Bloomberg, the U.S. and Europe will have to invest $87 billion and $102 billion, respectively, to meet domestic battery demand with fully local supply chains by 2030.

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Visualizing 25 Years of Lithium Production, by Country

Lithium production has grown exponentially over the last few decades. Which countries produce the most lithium, and how has this mix evolved?

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Lithium Production by Country (1995-2021)

Lithium is often dubbed as “white gold” for electric vehicles.

The lightweight metal plays a key role in the cathodes of all types of lithium-ion batteries that power EVs. Accordingly, the recent rise in EV adoption has sent lithium production to new highs.

The above infographic charts more than 25 years of lithium production by country from 1995 to 2021, based on data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy.

The Largest Lithium Producers Over Time

In the 1990s, the U.S. was the largest producer of lithium, in stark contrast to the present.

In fact, the U.S. accounted for over one-third of global lithium production in 1995. From then onwards until 2010, Chile took over as the biggest producer with a production boom in the Salar de Atacama, one of the world’s richest lithium brine deposits.

Global lithium production surpassed 100,000 tonnes for the first time in 2021, quadrupling from 2010. What’s more, roughly 90% of it came from just three countries.

RankCountry2021 Production (tonnes)% of Total
#1Australia 🇦🇺55,41652%
#2Chile 🇨🇱26,00025%
#3China 🇨🇳14,00013%
#4Argentina 🇦🇷5,9676%
#5Brazil 🇧🇷1,5001%
#6Zimbabwe 🇿🇼1,2001%
#7Portugal 🇵🇹9001%
#8United States 🇺🇸9001%
Rest of World 🌍1020.1%
Total105,984100%

Australia alone produces 52% of the world’s lithium. Unlike Chile, where lithium is extracted from brines, Australian lithium comes from hard-rock mines for the mineral spodumene.

China, the third-largest producer, has a strong foothold in the lithium supply chain. Alongside developing domestic mines, Chinese companies have acquired around $5.6 billion worth of lithium assets in countries like Chile, Canada, and Australia over the last decade. It also hosts 60% of the world’s lithium refining capacity for batteries.

Batteries have been one of the primary drivers of the exponential increase in lithium production. But how much lithium do batteries use, and how much goes into other uses?

What is Lithium Used For?

While lithium is best known for its role in rechargeable batteries—and rightly so—it has many other important uses.

Before EVs and lithium-ion batteries transformed the demand for lithium, the metal’s end-uses looked completely different as compared to today.

End-useLithium Consumption 2010 (%)Lithium Consumption 2021 (%)
Batteries23%74%
Ceramics and glass31%14%
Lubricating greases10%3%
Air treatment5%1%
Continuous casting4%2%
Other27%6%
Total100%100%

In 2010, ceramics and glass accounted for the largest share of lithium consumption at 31%. In ceramics and glassware, lithium carbonate increases strength and reduces thermal expansion, which is often essential for modern glass-ceramic cooktops.

Lithium is also used to make lubricant greases for the transport, steel, and aviation industries, along with other lesser-known uses.

The Future of Lithium Production

As the world produces more batteries and EVs, the demand for lithium is projected to reach 1.5 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) by 2025 and over 3 million tonnes by 2030.

For context, the world produced 540,000 tonnes of LCE in 2021. Based on the above demand projections, production needs to triple by 2025 and increase nearly six-fold by 2030.

Although supply has been on an exponential growth trajectory, it can take anywhere from six to more than 15 years for new lithium projects to come online. As a result, the lithium market is projected to be in a deficit for the next few years.

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