Lithium market turns focus to spodumene price trends

There has been increasing emphasis on spodumene pricing due to the growing importance of this concentrate as a major source of feedstock for conversion in lithium compounds and the potential knock-on effect in the downstream electric vehicle and battery sectors.

The growing importance of hard rock lithium concentrate as a major source of feedstock for lithium carbonate and hydroxide production has led to requests from physical and financial markets for Fastmarkets MB to publish a spodumene price with the potential to become an industry benchmark.

Therefore on January 25, 2019, Fastmarkets MB added a monthly spodumene cif China price to its benchmark lithium portfolio.

The spodumene min 5-6% cif China price, which has been available on Fastmarkets IM since 2011, is now also available on Fastmarkets MB. 

Fastmarkets’ monthly lithium spodumene min 5-6%, cif China price stood at $600-750 per tonne on December 26, 2018.

The surge in demand for lithium compounds was first reported at the end of 2015 due to the inability of traditional brine producers to fulfil existing battery industry demand. This caused the lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) spot price, ex-works domestic China to rise to $27 per kg in June 2016 from $7.70 per kg in October 2015 – a 296.5% increase.

High lithium prices, a shortage of lithium compounds and strong demand from the battery sector helped draw investment into the sector. The investment funded new hard rock lithium mines which started lithium spodumene production over recent years.

For many years, Talison Lithium’s Greenbushes mine in Western Australia was the only operating hard rock lithium mine selling lithium concentrate for chemical conversion. But since the price boom in 2015, several lithium hard rock mines have started production in Western Australia.

Mines taking advantage of the demand boom include Galaxy’s Mount CattlinMount Marion – jointly owned by Neometals and Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium – and Pilbara Minerals lithium mine in Pilgangoora.

Others include Altura’s Pilgangoora lithium mineAlliance Mineral’s Bald Hill Mine and AMG’s Mibra mine in Brazil.

In lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) terms, operational lithium hard rock mines accounted for over half of global LCE production in 2018.

Spodumene production increased to 191,050 tonnes per year of LCE in 2018 from 59,450 tpy in 2016, according to research by Fastmarkets.

By comparison, brine production in 2018 totaled 186,700 tpy of LCE from 125,893 tpy in 2015, according to Fastmarkets research (see pie charts).

Source: Fastmarkets

Source: Fastmarkets

Arguably, the higher production cost of lithium compounds produced from hard rock against lithium compounds produced from brine kept the lithium hard rock mining industry from growing in the years that preceded the lithium price increase in 2015.

However, the surge in lithium prices and rapid capacity of lithium hard rock mines to ramp up production against lithium brine projects has made hard rock today a major source of feedstock for lithium chemical conversion, and with it a strategic mineral for the whole lithium supply chain.

Spodumene prices are now included in our free service, Lithium Price Spotlight. See the latest price assessments here.