Lithium prices from Chile decline even as demand soars

Lithium export prices from the world’s second-largest producing nation fell in the first quarter, marking the first decline for the mineral that is key to electric vehicle batteries since at least 2014.

Chile exported lithium carbonate at an average price of $12,183 per ton, 0.9 percent down from the same period a year earlier, according to data from Chilean customs compiled by Bloomberg. Prices have soared 167 percent in the past five years.

The South American nation holds the world’s largest lithium reserves, the lightest metal on the periodic table and a key component in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries that power electric cars. Demand for lithium is expected to soar from 300,000 tons per year in 2018 to 850,000 tons in 2025, according to estimates from Bloomberg NEF. Chilean lithium is mined by the world’s two top producers, Albemarle Corp and Soc. Quimica y Minera de Chile SA, both of which have large operations on the northern Atacama salt flat.

Export volumes recovered in March following a decline in February, when heavy rains hit Chile’s north, forcing some copper mines in the area to halt operations. Albemarle and SQM, which will report first-quarter results this month, said at the time that the extreme weather event wouldn’t impact their overall production for the year.

Lithium prices also recovered in March, climbing to $11,707 per ton from the lowest in 15 months in February.

Central bank figures released on Tuesday show lithium carbonate exports declined to $49 million in April, from $83 million the previous month. The central bank does not release volume or price data.

(By Laura Millan Lombrana)