High-quality battery-grade lithium premiums will rise alongside EV demand, Brazil’s Sigma says

Brazilian pre-operational miner Sigma Lithium Resources expects the premium for high-quality lithium hydroxide monohydrate that goes into battery production to rise in the next few years while demand for electric vehicles (EVs) grows, vice-chairman Ana Cabral told Fastmarkets.

“We believe prices for technical grade lithium hydroxide, at 56.5%, will fall further from now on, but premium for 90% content and beyond are set to increase as the material starts going into EV battery output,” she said.

Fastmarkets assessed spot 56.5% lithium hydroxide prices in China at 105,000-115,000 yuan ($15,209-16,658) per tonne on December 6, unchanged from a week before but lower than this year’s peak of 148,000-153,000 yuan per tonne on January 11. 

Spot lithium hydroxide prices cif China, Japan and Korea were at $15-17 per kg on the same day, compared with a $20-22 per kg peak on May 3.

“Battery makers are increasingly looking for low-impurity, high-content lithium, and being able to deliver this product right now is key in our industry,” Cabral said. “We aim to produce refined material with high grades, and you can count on your fingers how many companies, mostly in Australia, do that.”

Sigma Lithium owns a spodumene pegmatite mine in Brazil’s Vale do Jequitinhonha, a region in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais whose GDP per capita ranks as the 121st lowest out of 137 meso-regions.

The company aims to start industrial operations in the fourth quarter of 2019 and produce 240,000 tonnes per year of spodumene concentrates (6-8% lithium oxide) by 2020, in “phase 2” of the plant.

A pilot 12,000-tpy capacity, or phase 1, is currently in place, meant for product approvals from clients while the miner finishes a feasibility study for the project. The study is scheduled to be finished by February 2019, Cabral said.

Japanese trader Mitsui has agreed to buy a third of initial commercial output in the second phase of operations, for $30 million, with an option to maintain its 33% proportion at a possible phase 3. A pre-payment will be done as soon as the feasibility study is ready, allowing the company to finance the start-up.

“We have continued discussing other offtake and similar agreements,” Cabral said. “There are more traders that wish to secure their supply, but we want to close deals with different types of companies and geographies, to diversify our portfolio.”

Learn more about Fastmarkets’ lithium pricing methodology and read the latest lithium price spotlight here.

All lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide and lithium spodumene prices are available in our Battery Raw Materials Market Tracker. Get a sample of the report here.