The highly charged geopolitics of lithium

Author: Marina Yue Zhang, UTS

Clean energy technologies are essential to achieve the decarbonisation targets set in the Paris Agreement. Critical minerals — including lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, copper and rare earth elements — are vital to produce clean energy products like solar panels, wind turbines and power batteries for electric vehicles (EVs).

Demand for lithium, a key component in lithium-ion batteries, has soared over the past three years as the clean energy transition accelerates. Though abundant, lithium is unevenly distributed and non-renewable. And until an alternative material for or approach to power batteries becomes available, lithium looks set to be at the centre of geopolitical tensions over the control of critical resources.

The top three producing countries process over 80 per cent of the most critical minerals used in lithium batteries. China dominates the processing of almost all minerals, with more than 50 per cent of total market share — except for nickel and copper — of which China controls 35 and 40 per cent, respectively.

Technology-intensive industries rely on interdependencies between countries with different endowments. This works well during periods of geopolitical stability and cooperation but the high concentration of processing in the lithium battery supply chain means that it is vulnerable to disruption by war, global pandemics, natural disasters or geopolitical tensions.

Australia has the world’s largest battery-grade lithium deposits, and export revenues have skyrocketed, with lithium becoming Australia’s sixth most valuable commodity export. Australia needs to consider how to profit from the boom and what role it can play in the lithium race.

Lithium battery production relies on a global supply chain composed of mineral extraction and production, mineral refinement and processing, and battery-cell production and battery-pack assembly. This supply chain is a complex network of organisations, people, activities, information and resources.

Australia and China complement each other in this supply chain. Australia supplies 46 per cent of lithium chemicals and a large proportion goes to Chinese processing facilities and then to Chinese battery and EV makers. China produces 60 per cent of the world’s lithium products and 75 per cent of all lithium-ion batteries, primarily powering its rapidly growing EV market, which accounts for 60 per cent of the world’s total.

The severity of supply chain vulnerability is different for Australia and China. China relies on imports of lithium chemicals from Australia for downstream productions, but it can source lithium from other channels, including its domestic supplies or from South America.

Yet China’s dominance in lithium processing means that few countries could absorb Australia’s supply if China looks to alternative sources. Long lead times in building lithium processing facilities limit the speed at which new production can be ramped up to meet rapid demand increases. Building such capabilities requires capital investment, skilled workers, and an ecosystem where complementary suppliers of components, equipment and services are clustered to minimise costs.

Prioritising national security over economic benefits, the United States and European Union aim to increase their self-sufficiency in the lithium supply chain out of a concern about potential disruption to battery supplies stemming from China’s dominance of production. China could face the possibility of being cut off from the US-led supply chain system.

Australian Industry and Science Minister, Ed Husic, commented: ‘Australia has globally significant deposits of essential battery materials and strong local innovation and research capabilities. By drawing on these strengths, Australia can take its place in the profitable global battery supply chain’. He implied that faced with the geopolitical tensions of lithium, Australia should move from low-value-adding ‘digging it and shipping it’ to a higher value-adding position, including lithium chemical processing and even battery manufacturing.

While Australia has not suffered a ‘resources curse’ in the traditional sense, its resources boom in iron ore and natural gas in the past thirty years has led to the appreciation of the Australian dollar, which has lowered the competitiveness of other exports, especially in manufacturing. In 2021, value-added in manufacturing dropped to less than 6 per cent of Australia’s GDP, down from almost 14 per cent in 1990.

Australia moving up the value chain would…

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