Mining in the Lithium Triangle

 

The Lithium Triangle, or Triángulo del Litio, is an area in South America stretching

over Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. The Lithium Triangle contains more than half

of the world’s known lithium resources.

 

We take a look at the listed companies mining lithium in the region.

Lithium Triangle – Resources & Reserves
Source: U.S. Geological Survey, January 2023. Figures in millions of tons.
Resources
– identified Lithium resources
Reserves– can be economically extracted or produced using existing technologies

Features of the Lithium Triangle

High Altitude

The triangle rests in the Andes mountains, and the lithium resources sit at very high altitudes.

Brines (not hard rock)

Lithium here is found in brines which are pumped from the ground and stored in evaporation ponds.

Low Cost

The brines in the Lithium Triangle have some of the highest known concentrations of lithium, resulting in some of the world’s lowest-cost lithium mines.

Lower Carbon Footprint

Lithium from brines has 3x fewer carbon emissions compared to lithium from hard rock deposits, according to IEA data.

Lithium reserves by country - Chile, Bolivia, Argentina

Lithium Resources by Country
Source: U.S. Geological Survey, January 2023

Lithium Resources by Country 2022 - Square Pie Chart

Production Facilities

There are two lithium mines in the Salar de Atacama, which holds around 80% of Chile’s Lithium. One is operated by Sociedad Química y Minera (“SQM”), and the other is operated by Albemarle. Both companies rent concessions on leases from CORFO, a government entity.

Salar de Atacama

  • World’s 3rd largest salt flat – 3,000 km2  (1,200 mi2)
  • 3,656 m (11,995 ft) above sea level
  • Host to more than 15% of the world’s known lithium reserves
  • Atacama possesses the world’s highest-grade lithium
  • Around 1/3 of the global lithium output is produced in Salar de Atacama
  • The Atacama is one of the driest deserts on Earth, which helps reduce the amount of time it takes for the brine to evaporate.
CORFO (Corporación de Fomento de la Producción)
  • The Production Development Corporation (Corporación de Fomento de la Producción or “CORFO”), a Chilean government entity.
  • Rights to lithium resources in Chile are owned by CORFO and leased to SQM and Albemarle.
  • CORFO sets extraction limits and takes a hefty cut of the profits (See the full royalty rates table in appendix 1)
  • For every $1 over $10/kg LCE, Albemarle pays $0.40 to CORFO. In 2022, global spot LCE prices reached $80/kg.
CORFO Royalty Rates
Lithium Carbonate Lithium Hydroxide
Price Range (USD/ton) Progressive Commission Rate (%) Price Range (USD/ton) Progressive Commission Rate (%)
0-4,000 6.8% 0-4,000 6.8%
4,000-5,000 8% 4,000-5,000 8%
5,000-6,000 10% 5,000-6,000 10%
6,000-7,000 17% 6,000-9,000 17%
7,000-10,000 25% 9,000-11,000 25%
Over 10,000 40% Over 11,000 40%

Source: Albemarle

Codelco / Nationalization

In April 2023, President Gabriel Boric announced a plan to dramatically overhaul Chile’s lithium industry.

Boric stated: “Any private company, whether foreign or local, that wants to exploit lithium in Chile must partner with the state. […] This is an opportunity for economic growth that will be difficult to beat in the short term.”

Some of the major takeaways:

  • Chile has tasked Codelco, a state-owned copper mining company, with overseeing lithium nationalization.
  • The plan is for the formation of a new state-owned lithium company that will hold a majority stake in all lithium mines.
  • Current contracts for SQM and Albemarle will be respected.
      • SQM’s contract ends in 2030 while Albermarle’s extends to 2043.

Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (SQM)
Albemarle (ALB)
  • SQM produced 152,500 metric tons of lithium carbonate from the Salar de Atacama in 2022, giving the company a ~21% market share in global lithium products.
  • SQM has credited the high concentrations of lithium and the high evaporation rate in the Salar de Atacama for allowing them to be one of the lowest-cost producers globally.

  • Historically, the Salar de Atacama has been the only lithium mining location for SQM. However, the company announced an investment in the Mt Holland lithium project, which is expected to commence lithium hydroxide production in 2025.
  • The lithium solution from the Salar de Atacama is processed in the company's Carmen Lithium production facility near Antofagasta, Chile.
  • SQM has announced that they are expanding the Carmen facility to reach 210,000 tpa (tons per annum) of lithium carbonate by 2023 and 100,000 tpa of lithium hydroxide capacity by 2025.
  • In 2022, 93% of the company's lithium products were sold to Asia.

 

  • Albemarle acquired lithium assets in the Salar de Atacama when it purchased Rockwood Holdings for $6.2 billion in 2015.
  • The company takes lithium brine from the Salar de Atacama and processes it into lithium carbonate and lithium chloride at their manufacturing facilities in La Negra, Chile.
  • In June 2022, the company completed an expansion of its La Negra conversion facilities, raising production capacity to 85,000 t/y (tons per year) of battery-grade lithium carbonate.

Production Facilities

There are 3 lithium production facilities currently in operation in Argentina.

    • Livent's operation in the Salar del Hombre Muerto.
    • Allkem's project further north in the Salar de Olaroz.
    • The Cauchari-Olaroz project joint owned by Lithium Argentina and Ganfeng.

Capacity is expected to scale rapidly as Argentina currently has the largest pipeline of new lithium projects anywhere in the world. The pipeline includes projects from Ganfeng, POSCO, Eramet and Rio Tinto.

Recent Capital Markets Activity

  • In May 2023, Livent and Allkem announced plans to merge into a single company, with Livent CEO Paul Graves leading the combined company. Merger Announcement Presentation.
  • In October 2023, Lithium Argentina was formed through the separation of Lithium Americas Corp.'s North American and Argentinian assets. Lithium Argentina is now listed on the NYSE with the ticker LAAC.
Livent
Allkem
Lithium Argentina
  • Livent, formed in a spinoff of FMC's lithium business, began extracting lithium in Salar del Hombre Muerto in 1998.
  • The lithium extract is processed into lithium carbonate at their co-located manufacturing facility in Fénix, Argentina, and into lithium chloride at a nearby manufacturing facility in Güemes, Argentina.
  • Lithium brine production was approximately 18,500 metric tons on a lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) basis in 2021.
  • Livent plans to expand capacity to 40,000tpa in 2024, and to 70,000tpa in 2026.
  • The Olaroz Lithium Facility (Olaroz) is located in the Jujuy Province of northern Argentina. The facility sits 3,900m above sea level.
  • The effective Olaroz Project equity interest is Allkem at 66.5%, Toyota Tsusho Corp at 25%, and Jujuy Energia y Mineria Sociedad del Estado (JEMSE) at 8.5%.
  • The operation produced 12,863 tonnes of lithium carbonate for the fiscal year 2022.
  • The operation is targeting a long-term annual capacity of 42,500 tonnes.
  • Toyota Tsusho Corp is the exclusive sales agent for the lithium carbonate products produced.
  • The Cauchari-Olaroz project is located in Jujuy province in northwest Argentina.
  • Lithium Argentina own 44.8% of the project, with Ganfeng owning 46.7%. The other 8.5% is held by JEMSE, a mining company owned by the government of Jujuy province.
  • The project achieved first lithium production in June 2023 and is expecting 5,000 tonnes in 2023.
  • The mine is expected to operate at a full capacity of 40,000 tons per annum battery-grade lithium carbonate by mid-2024.
  • A Stage 2 expansion of at least 20,000tpa is being planned.
  • Beyond Cauchari-Olaroz, the company owns assets in the Pastos Grandes Basin.
      • It owns 100% of the feasibility-stage Pastos Grandes project through the acquisition of Millennial Lithium for $390 million in 2022.
      • It owns 65% of the Sal de la Puna project through the acquisition of Arena Minerals for $227 million in 2023.

Production Facilities

Despite having the largest lithium resources of any country in the world, Bolivia has very little lithium production.

The rainfall in Bolivia extends the amount of time required for brine to evaporate in evaporation ponds.

Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB), a state-owned lithium firm, is the only company allowed to extract lithium in Bolivia.

YLB has struggled to produce significant amounts of lithium. Reuters reported that the country has “poured hundreds of millions of dollars into traditional evaporation ponds that have produced little lithium, due in part to high naturally occurring concentrations of magnesium.”

Salar de Uyuni

  • World's largest salt flat - 10,000 km2  (3,900 mi2)
  • 3,656 m (11,995ft) above sea level
  • Single largest deposit of identified lithium resources in the world
  • Filing location for Star Wars: the Last Jedi and other movies
CATL

Bolivia Chooses CATL

In January 2023 the Bolivian government announced it has chosen CATL to help develop its lithium reserves.

Deal terms announced:

  • The consortium led by CATL will invest over $1 billion in Phase 1
  • The project will use (as yet unproven) direct lithium extraction technology
  • Bolivian President Luis Arce also noted talks were ongoing with other foreign firms. Previously Reuters had reported the finalists were:
    • Lilac Solutions (United States)
    • CATL (China) 300750.SZ
    • Uranium One (Russia)
    • Fusion Enertech (China)
    • TBEA Co Ltd (China) 600089.SS
    • CITIC Guoan Group (China)

On June 20th, 2023, CATL confirmed they will be making a $1.4 billion investment in Bolivia.

Bolivia's energy ministry added that construction on two facilities could begin in July 2023 and the total investment may rise to $9.9 billion throughout the lifecycle of the project.

Lithium Triangle FAQ

Which companies mine in the Lithium Triangle?
  • The companies with active mining operations in the lithium triangle are SQM (Chile), Albemarle (United States) in Chile, Livent (United States), Allkem (Australia) and Lithium Argentina (Canada) in Argentina.
  • Argentina has a pipeline of potential future projects by Posco (South Korea), Zijin Mining (China), Rio Tinto (Anglo-Australian), and Ganfeng (China).
  • The Bolivian government has chosen CATL (China) to assist in the development of its lithium resources.
How much of the world’s Lithium is in the Lithium Triangle?

53.4% of the world's lithium resources lie in the Lithium Triangle countries of Argentina, Chila and Bolivia according to the U.S. Geological Survey's 2023 Mineral Commodities Summaries.

Bolivia has 21.58% of global resources, followed by 20.55% and 11.3% for Argentina and Chile respectively.

How is lithium mined in the Lithium Triangle?
  • Lithium in the Lithium Triangle is found in underground brines that is pumped to the surface into evaporation ponds.
  • The sun evaporates the water over several months, leaving a brine with a higher lithium concentration.
  • The material is then converted into lithium chemicals, primarily Lithium Carbonate and Lithium Hydroxide.
How large is the Lithium Triangle?

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, "The Lithium Triangle is approximately 400,000 km2 and encompasses about 150 internal drainage basins in northwestern Argentina, western Bolivia, northern Chile, and southern-most Peru."

Does Argentina have Lithium mines?
  • Yes, Allkem, Livent and Lithium Argentina are currently mining lithium from evaporation ponds in Northern Argentina and producing lithium chemicals.
  • Argentina also has numerous projects in the pipeline including projects owned by POSCO, Zijin Mining, Ganfeng, and Rio Tinto.
Does Bolivia have Lithium mines?
  • Despite having the largest lithium resources in the world, Bolivia has not yet produced lithium on a large scale.
  • In January 2023 the country announced it is partnering with Chinese battery firm CATL to develop its lithium resources.

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