The global lithium market has seen prices moving to new record highs almost daily, boosted by limited supply and good demand. This strength is expected to continue into 2022, as supply tightness persists and demand for electric vehicles continues to grow.
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Seaborne lithium carbonate prices have gained 413% since the start of 2021 to $32,600/mt CIF North Asia on Dec. 14, while lithium hydroxide prices have climbed 254% over the same period to $31,900/mt CIF North Asia, according to S&P Global Platts data.
Lithium prices were due to remain strong going into 2022, according to a number of market players, due to bullish supply-demand dynamics.
According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, lithium chemical supply is forecast to 636,000 mt lithium carbonate equivalent in 2022, up from 408,000 mt in 2020 and an estimated 497,000 mt in 2021.
This was forecast by MI to be met by chemical demand of 641,000 mt LCE in 2022, up from 342,000 mt in 2020 and an estimated 504,000 mt in 2021.
The ensuing forecast deficit of 5,000 mt LCE in 2022, compares with a surplus of 66,000 mt in 2020 and an estimated deficit of 8,000 mt in 2021, with MI saying the ongoing deficit was expected to allow prices to remain strong in 2022.
Lithium looks brighter
A Tianqi Lithium spokesperson told S&P Global Platts that the market's understanding of lithium resources was being reshaped.
"Due to its strategic significance, lithium resources will be more difficult to obtain and control. Therefore, lithium resources will become a key factor restricting the development of the industry in the medium- and long-term," the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson also attributed rising prices to some lithium-ion battery manufacturers' accelerated capacity expansion and increasing downstream cathode material orders.
An Albemarle spokesperson told Platts the market would "remain tight in 2022 as new industry supply comes close to keeping up with expected demand."
The company saw in excess of 30% growth in lithium demand through 2025, largely due to high EV production and sales, but also due to larger battery sizes, the Albemarle spokesperson added.
According to Platts Analytics, global plug-in light-duty EV sales are expected to rise to 6.5 million units in 2022 and 10.5 million units in 2025, up from an estimated 6 million units in 2021 and 3.1 million units in 2020.
To meet growing demand, several producers are planning to expand capacity, although most of the additional volumes are expected to be available earliest H2 2022, sources said.
"We heard from suppliers H1 will remain very tight, then it should be a bit better in H2," said a consumer source, who believed prices would keep climbing until peaking around the mid-$30,000s/mt by the end of H1.
"In H2, new supply can bring some relief to the market and maybe we will start to see some price correction," the source added.
All existing suppliers are planning expansions. Recently, Albemarle's MARBL joint venture with Minerals Resources in Western Australia announced plans to restart one of the Wodgina mine's three 250,000 mt/year processing lines in Q3 2022.
Livent resumed its expansion plan and will add 5,000 mt of lithium hydroxide capacity in the US, which is expected to reach commercial production by Q3 2022. It is also adding an initial 10,000 mt lithium carbonate in Argentina, although this is only due to reach commercial production in the first quarter of 2023, with another 10,000 mt to be added in the second phase by the end of 2023.
The 25,000 mt/year Stage 2 expansion of Allkem's Olaroz brine project in Argentina is continuing and is expected to be completed during the first half of 2022. Production at the 25,000 mt/year expansion is slated for the second half, bringing the project's total capacity to 42,500 mt/year.
SQM targets to reach a total capacity of 180,000 mt/y next year in its Chilean brine operation, with total production expected to achieve 140,000 mt in 2022. These represent increases of approximately 60,000 mt/year and 40,000 mt, respectively, from 2021.
Pilbara Minerals is forecasting production capacity of approximately 180,000-200,000 dmt/year from its Ngungaju plant at the Pilangoora operation in Western Australia from mid-2022, as it ramps up.
This will complement existing production capacity from the adjacent Pilgan Plant, which is also increasing capacity from around 330,000mt/year to 360,000-380,000 mt/year through improvement works.
New projects should also start up next year, including Lithium Americas' 40,000 mt/year carbonate operation in Argentina and Sigma Lithium's 330,000 mt/year spodumene project in Brazil.