The insatiable demand for the latest smartphone, along with a need to transition to clean energy, keeps driving demand for the lightest of metals. Lithium, with its high electrical conductivity, is key to many rechargeable devices, such as cellphones, laptops, and energy storage systems, not to mention electric vehicles, for which global sales are expected to rise 70 percent in 2021. All in all, the global lithium market is projected to quintuple over the next 35 years, Americas Society / Council of the Americas reports.
That bodes well for the countries of the Lithium Triangle—Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile—where 58 percent of the world’s identified lithium resources lies, per January 2021 data from the U.S. Geological Survey. The South American region’s abundance is partly due to the vast salt flats, or salares, where the metal is extracted from brine pools through an evaporation process facilitated by the arid, sunny climate.
Resources, however, do not necessarily translate to accessible reserves or production capacity, which require technology, investment, and a favorable regulatory framework to harness the power and potential of this so-called “white gold.”
An over-supply of lithium, coupled with falling prices in recent years, led mining companies to scale back operations. Yet, lithium consumption, 70 percent of which goes toward batteries, continues to rise. Add to that pandemic-fueled logistical hurdles stalling projects and the seven- to 10-year cycles needed to launch production, and securing the metal’s supply has become a strategic concern for technology manufacturing hubs. Such is the case for China, the EU, Japan, South Korea, and the United States, which together import 78 percent of the world’s total dollar value of lithium carbonate, the metal’s most commercial compound.
Here we identify the state of lithium development in the three Lithium Triangle countries, as well as the lesser-known players in the field.