Zijin adds China mine in race to join lithium’s global top tier

Tibet. (Image by Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn), Flickr).

Zijin Mining Group Co. is stepping up efforts to become a major player in the global lithium rush, adding a mine-revival project in China to acquisitions from Africa to South America.

The group, which is mainly known as one of China’s top copper and gold miners, plans to pay 1.8 billion yuan ($269 million) for a 71% stake in a company mining for lithium in Hunan province. Zijin wants to be China’s third-biggest producer of the battery material, and among the world’s top 10, it said on its Wechat account.

Chinese companies are at the forefront of a global race to extract and process the vast supplies of lithium, cobalt and other metals that will be needed for the battery industry in the coming decades. Tianqi Lithium Corp. said last week it plans to raise $1.7 billion in one of Hong Kong’s biggest listings of 2022.

Zijin’s target is Hunan Houdao Mining Co., which is restarting a retired polymetallic mine to feed “the explosive growth of new energy metals like lithium,” it said in a statement. The project will initially produce 60,000 to 70,000 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent a year, and Zijin will build refining facilities at the site.

The miner struck a deal earlier this year to jointly develop lithium reserves in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and also said it would spend 7.7 billion yuan to buy lithium operations in Tibet. That followed the C$960 million ($744 million) acquisition of Neo Lithium Corp., a Canadian company with lithium assets in Argentina, in 2021.

Events in China are crucial to what’s next for lithium carbonate prices that have surged by more than 10 times over the past two years. The prospect of more supply from the nation was the key reason behind Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s recent — and hotly contested — forecast for prices to cool, the bank’s co-head of China equity research Trina Chen told Bloomberg TV this week.

Zijin alluded to the uncertainties ahead for lithium in its risk warning for the Hunan acquisition. “The new energy industry is developing rapidly, yet the competition is also fierce,” it said. “If the prices of the project’s products fluctuate vigorously, the profitability of the project will be uncertain.”

The group’s goal is to produce 150,000 tons a year of lithium carbonate equivalent in the long term. That compares with China’s top producer Ganfeng Lithium Co., which is aiming for output of 300,000 tons a year by 2025.

(With assistance from Winnie Zhu)

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