Lithium carbonate and hydroxide prices continued to display a downward trend throughout the majority of 2019, with monthly average lithium carbonate prices falling 36% between January and December. Trends in Q1 2020 have seen monthly average prices fall further to <US$7,000/t Li2CO3 for the first time since 2014, eroding price increases caused by forecast strong demand growth in the lithium-ion battery industry and uncertainty over future supply. Just as higher prices incentivised the rapid commissioning of production capacity throughout the supply chain, the slide in lithium prices has stressed almost all producers from mined products to refined compounds, causing output curtailments or suspensions.
Demand for lithium compounds from the rechargeable battery industry has displayed strong growth throughout the 2010s, with the increasing use of larger Li-ion batteries in automotive applications. In 2019, rechargeable batteries accounted for 54% of total lithium demand, almost entirely from Li-ion battery technologies. Though the rapid rise of hybrid and electric vehicle sales has brought attention to the requirement for lithium compounds, falling sales in H2 2019 in China, the largest market for EV’s, and a global reduction in sales caused by lockdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic in H1 2020 have put the short-term ‘breaks’ on lithium demand growth, impacting demand from both battery and industrial applications. Longer term scenarios continue to show strong growth for lithium demand over the coming decade however, with Roskill forecasting demand to exceed 1.0Mt LCE in 2027, with growth in excess of 18%py to 2030.
As battery applications extend their dominance of lithium demand, the market is expected to become more focussed on providing products to meet specifications for automotive batteries. The shift towards high-nickel cathode materials, to increase battery energy density, is accelerating demand growth for lithium hydroxide, though its cost premium over lithium carbonate has made some consumers reluctant to switch feedstock. Lithium hydroxide is expected to become the dominant lithium chemistry consumed, though the balance between lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide remains highly dependent on lithium-ion cathode requirements.
A correction in the oversupply of mined lithium products observed in 2018 and 2019 is on-going, with in excess of 30,000t LCE contained in spodumene concentrates estimated to be held in stockpiles at end-2019. Continued weak spodumene concentrate prices have caused lithium mineral operations to target reducing production costs through improved recovery, strip ratios and in-situ grades. While lower lithium prices have impacted sales revenue at lithium brine and mineral conversion facilities, production cost have remained largely stable in 2019. This has been largely down to major brine operations in Chile benefiting from price linked ‘sliding-scale’ royalty payments, and mineral conversion plants benefiting from lower raw material costs and improved feedstock quality.
Longer term, further additions to lithium production capacity for mined and refined lithium products will be required to keep pace with demand growth, led by battery applications. Though schedule pipeline capacity appears sufficient to meet this demand growth, challenges and set-backs in developing, financing and commissioning lithium mining and refining operations are expected. Even major incumbent lithium producers are at risk of failing to meet production targets and expansion plans, highlighting the technical and financial hurdles involved with bringing sizable volumes of new capacity online. Roskill maintains the view that future refined lithium supply will remain tight, with a period of sustained supply deficit in the mid-2020s.