U.S. lithium production and market trends in 2023

The U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) latest Mineral Commodity Summaries report reveals significant trends and developments in the global lithium market, highlighting an impressive 23% increase in worldwide lithium production in 2023. This surge is primarily driven by the escalating demand for lithium-ion batteries, essential components for electric vehicles (EVs) and various portable electronic devices.
An infographic titled "Top Lithium Producers in 2023" displays an aerial view of lithium brine pools divided into sections, each representing a country’s lithium production in metric tons. The largest section, representing Australia, shows a production of 86K metric tons. Chile follows with 44K metric tons, then China with 33K metric tons. Smaller sections indicate Argentina with 9.6K metric tons, Brazil with 4.9K metric tons, and the Rest of the World with 7.2K metric tons. The source of the data is the United States Geological Survey (2024).
Source: Elements

Domestic Landscape and Industrial Use

In the United States, lithium production continues at a commercial scale from a continental brine operation in Nevada and brine-sourced waste tailings in Utah. While specific domestic production figures remain confidential to protect proprietary company data, it is evident that the U.S. plays a crucial role in the downstream processing of lithium compounds. Two major U.S. companies utilise domestic and imported lithium carbonate, lithium chloride, and lithium hydroxide to produce a wide range of lithium-based products.

Globally, the primary end use of lithium remains in batteries, accounting for an estimated 87% of consumption. The remaining uses include ceramics and glass (4%), lubricating greases (2%), air treatment (1%), continuous casting mould flux powders (1%), medical applications (1%), and various other uses (4%).

Market Dynamics and Price Fluctuations

The report indicates that U.S. lithium imports have steadily increased, reaching 3,400 metric tons in 2023, up from 3,270 metric tons in 2022. Exports, however, saw a slight decline to 2,300 metric tons. Notably, the price of battery-grade lithium carbonate witnessed significant volatility. The annual average price dropped to $46,000 per metric ton in 2023 from a high of $68,100 per metric ton in 2022, reflecting a 32% decrease.

This price fluctuation is attributed to several factors, including concerns over a potential short-term oversupply of lithium, the end of China’s electric vehicle subsidies, and weaker-than-expected global EV sales. Spot prices for lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide in China experienced dramatic decreases, further influencing global market trends.

Recycling and Import Sources

The construction of lithium battery recycling plants has accelerated, with about 40 companies in North America and 50 in Europe actively recycling or planning to recycle lithium batteries. This growth is bolstered by partnerships between automobile manufacturers and battery recyclers, aiming to secure a sustainable supply of battery materials.

The primary sources of lithium imports for the U.S. between 2019 and 2022 were Argentina (51%), Chile (43%), China (3%), and Russia (2%).

Global Production and Reserves

The majority of the world’s lithium production in 2023 came from seven mineral operations in Australia, brine operations in Argentina and Chile, mineral operations in Canada, and several operations in China and Zimbabwe. Total global production reached approximately 180,000 metric tons, with reserves estimated at 28 million metric tons. The U.S. alone holds an estimated 1.1 million metric tons of lithium reserves.

Strategic Initiatives and Future Prospects

In response to the growing demand for lithium, numerous countries are actively developing new extraction and processing facilities. The U.S. Department of Energy has committed $1.6 billion to support 12 lithium-based projects under the 2022 U.S. Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. These projects aim to enhance domestic lithium extraction, processing, and recycling capabilities. Additionally, the 2022 U.S. Inflation Reduction Act provides tax incentives to consolidate battery material sourcing and EV manufacturing within North America and allied nations.

Lithium supply security has become paramount for technology firms in Asia, Europe, and North America. Strategic alliances and joint ventures are being formed to ensure a reliable and diversified supply of lithium, crucial for the continued expansion of the EV market and other high-tech industries.

Conclusion

The USGS report underscores the dynamic nature of the global lithium market, driven by technological advancements and the transition to sustainable energy solutions. With increasing production capabilities and strategic initiatives, the future of lithium as a critical mineral resource appears robust, poised to meet the growing demands of a rapidly evolving global economy.

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