Chile Lithium Market Opportunity

Keagan Hanley
April 26, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017


Fig. 1: Illustration nof lithium-ion battery. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Lithium is quickly increasing in global demand as advanced economies turn towards new electronic technology. Commonly used in cell phones, computers and other electronic devices, lithium ion batteries are lighter, charge faster and are able to store more energy than any other traditional energy source. According to Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and founder of the Gigafactory, lithium ion batteries are the solution to a sustainable future in EV market. Musk's goal is to produce 500k electric vehicles by 2020, and Tesla will need about 24,000 tons annually of lithium hydroxide, which is almost half of the global lithium market. [1] Since the United States has limited reserves of lithium of its own, it must import the resource from countries with natural lithium deposits. Chile happens to be a friendly trade partner and low-cost producer of lithium.

Technical Overview

The basic components of a battery include an anode and cathode, a separator and two current collectives, one positive and one negative. Lithium is stored in the anode and cathode, and becomes positively charged lithium ions when hit with an electrolyte. The lithium ions then charge the positive current collector, creating an electronic current that flows into the object that is being charged, whether a cell phone, computer or other electronic device. The lithium ion will travel through the electronic device and towards the negative current collector. When the battery is charging, lithium ions are released from the cathode and received by the anode, and the opposite occurs when the battery is not charging. [2] The energy a lithium-ion battery stores is approximately 180 Wh kg-1, and at an average voltage of 3.8 V is only a factor of 5 higher than that stored by the much older leadacid batteries. [2]

Chile Challenges and Opportunities

The Salar de Atacama, located in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, has the highest concentration of lithium in its brine and also the largest producing lithium deposit. The Salar de Atacama is the world's largest producer of lithium carbonate (Li2CO3), with 40,000 and 25,000 tons of Li2CO3 in 2008 from operations owned by Sociedad Quimica y Minera and Rockwood Holdings Inc. [3] This amounts to over 12,000 tons of lithium metal production, more than half of the world's total production of 22,800. [3] Chile is very well known for its diverse climates, abundant natural resources and its high trade exports. However, instead of manufacturing finished products, like lithium ion batteries, Chile traditionally exports its processed lithium and other natural resources to the U.S. and China, where they develop lithium ion batteries for the growing electric vehicle markets. The natural lithium market is limited to only a few countries, including Australia, Chile, Argentina and China. [4] While lithium-carbonate mining in Australia and China require a more intensive extraction technique from solid ore, in Chile, the climate conditions are perfect for naturally forming salt-lake brines. [5] The Chilean mining technique involves pumping pools of brine that lie beneath the desert surface and allowing the pools to evaporate, leaving lithium as a byproduct. [6] This method of extraction is more environmentally friendly and aligned with the goals of the sustainable energy movement.

Despite its strong economic position in Latin America and inexpensive mining opportunity, Chile has been unable to capitalize on the market-share in this industry because of excessive government regulation. Outdated government quotas limit the amount of lithium that Chilean mining companies like SQM can extract. According to some estimates, the Atacama salt flat alone could more than quadruple production to 350,000 tons per year without extracting more brine, says Eduardo Bitran, CORFOs chief executive. [4] Meanwhile, the Australia is producing more lithium as the market expands and Chile is quickly losing market share, and its strategic partnership with the U.S. and China. [4]

Looking Ahead

Lithium batteries are becoming a valuable commodity as the electric vehicle market continues to gain momentum. In order for Chile to take advantage of this opportunity, it will need to increase the supply of lithium or raise the price of lithium. For production to meet market demand, the Chilean government will need to remove government quotas. Otherwise, Chile will have a tough time competing with other lithium-producing countries.

© Keagan Hanley. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] H. Sanderson, Tesla in Stand-Off Over Lithium Supply, Financial Times, 15 Dec 15.

[2] M. Armand, M. and J.-M. Tarascon, "Building Better Batteries," Nature 451, 652 (2008).

[3] P. W. Gruber et al., "Global Lithium Availability," J. Ind. Ecol. 15 760 (2011).

[4] "A Battle For Supremacy in the Lithium Triangle," The Economist, 15 Jun 17.

[5] C. Grosjean et al., "Assessment of World Lithium Resources and Consequences of Their Geographic Distribution on the Expected Development of the Electric Vehicle Industry," Renew. Sust. Energy Rev. 16, 1735 (2012).

[6] H. Sanderson, "Lithium: Chile's Buried Treasure," Financial Times, 7 Jul 16.