Flexibility is the key to lithium industry future, executives say

By IM Staff
Published: Tuesday, 09 July 2019

The flexibility to produce either lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide will be essential, as will close co-operation with end-users, while lithium-ion battery technology develops and hydroxide overtakes carbonate as the preferred choice.

The market share taken by lithium hydroxide continues to grow globally, and market participants expect the material to overtake lithium carbonate as the preferred lithium compound in lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries within the next decade, they said at Fastmarkets’ 11th Lithium Supply & Markets Conference held in Santiago, Chile, in June.

Demand for lithium carbonate, currently the most widely used lithium compound in Li-ion batteries, is expected to remain strong, however.

"We need to be prepared for [whichever] product the customer is demanding," Pablo Altimiras, vice president of lithium and iodine business at Chilean producer SQM, said. "Hydroxide consumption is growing more rapidly than carbonate, but we will still have high levels of carbonate demand for many, many years."

Producers agreed that this flexibility comes from working closely with consumers, with lithium products seen as almost "tailor-made" depending on end-user needs.

"Demand for this or that specific product will depend on the evolution of the battery market and, of course, what the customers are looking for," David Ryan, vice president for corporate strategy and investor relations at Albermarle, said.

"Over time, we see a more significant shift to hydroxide, but carbonate will always be a great part of our portfolio," Ryan added.

"There are going to be nuances in demand, regarding each particular market, the specifications of the material needed, and others. So, you have to be flexible and grow in relationship with your customers," Emma Hall, vice president for corporate development and marketing at Tianqi Lithium, said.

Fastmarkets’ weekly lithium carbonate index, min 99.5% Li2O3, battery-grade, exw China, was calculated at 74,458 yuan ($10,795) per tonne on June 6, down from 74,686 yuan per tonne ex-works.

Meanwhile, Fastmarkets assessed the price of lithium hydroxide monohydrate, 56.5% LiOH.H2O min, battery-grade, spot price exw domestic China, at 83,000-88,000 yuan per tonne on June 6, stable since May 23 but down from 85,000-90,000 yuan per tonne on May 16.

"China is a very important market," Ryan added, "and we are always closely watching what happens in the country, regarding different levels of quality and different end-uses, because it is also a supplier of batteries and electric vehicles to the rest of the world."