EconomyBattle for lithium heats up

Battle for lithium heats up

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Good evening.

What some have dubbed the fourth industrial revolution — that of electrification and decarbonisation — is well under way, and its key fuel is lithium, the critical component for battery storage.

The struggle for control of the resource has sparked huge battles, as illustrated by our report today from lithium’s “corridor of power” in Western Australia, where multinationals have clashed with domestic mining billionaires, triggering memories of the boom in iron ore in the 1960s and the nickel rush of the 1970s. 

As the new FT film explains, market commentators expect the lithium market to perhaps quadruple in size over the next 10 years.

“These exciting periods don’t come around too often, these prolonged periods of demand for a commodity. It is driving a frenzy,” said one mining veteran. “There’s only so many seats at the table. It’s like musical chairs — you don’t want to miss out.”

The rush for lithium is worldwide. Glencore is making its first investment in a lithium mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo after agreeing a deal with Tantalex, a Toronto-listed group, while GEL, a developer of a geothermal electricity plant is planning to extract lithium from a site in Cornwall. GEL joins a race with Cornish Lithium, Imerys British Lithium and others to revive the region’s mining heritage.

Global production is led by Australia, Chile, China and Argentina which together account for 95 per cent of the total, but China dominates lithium processing through its vast network of refineries, leaving the US and Europe struggling to increase their independence.  

The EU is planning to lower regulatory barriers to the production of lithium, graphite and cobalt while in the US, the Inflation Reduction Act offers generous tax credits on EVs that source their battery raw materials from the US and free trade partners. That has added pressures for carmakers to source supply domestically. In January, GM announced a $650mn investment in a US lithium mine.

Environmental protests have also grown. The Barroso mine in Portugal has been forced to push back several times as it awaits approval while a project in Nevada has also faced years of opposition from conservation groups. At the same time, China is turning to more relaxed regulatory regimes in Africa and Latin America to get feedstock for its domestic lithium refineries.

The oil majors are getting in on the act too in an attempt to remain profitable in a new non-fossil fuel age. “It’s a natural evolution for oil companies,” says one market expert. “Lithium brines are an obvious one as unlike charging networks and wind farms, where they have no skills besides project management, they are skilled at subsurface pumping and fluids.”

ExxonMobil plans to begin producing lithium in 2027, betting it can use its expertise in drilling and processing to become a leading player. Schlumberger, Occidental Petroleum and Equinor are also exploring whether their core skills of pumping, processing and reinjecting underground fluids such as oil and water could be deployed to process lithium.

The scramble for supplies has also opened up a race for alternatives.

Swedish start-up Northvolt has developed a battery that has no lithium — or cobalt or nickel — and instead relies on sodium, which is much more abundant. Sodium-ion batteries are cheaper and safer because they work better at both very high and low temperatures, but until now the amount of energy they can produce relative to their size has lagged behind, making them impractical for most EVs.

Need to know: UK and Europe economy

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak said a “low tax approach” was the key to attracting investors at a London Global Investment Summit to showcase Britain as a business hub, unveiling some £30bn of financial pledges and memorandums of understanding with international groups. Chief economics commentator Martin Wolf has some ideas on how Sunak’s government might revive flagging growth.

A parliamentary report called for reform of the Bank of England after its “complacency” about the threat of inflation, recommending that BoE recruits should be drawn from more varied intellectual backgrounds to foster a “diversity of views and culture of challenge”. 

Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of coffee and cocoa in EU warehouses could be destroyed as an unforeseen consequence of the bloc’s deforestation law, which restricts non-compliant stocks from sale.

Need to know: Global economy

The growing belief among investors that the US Federal Reserve is done with increasing interest rates and is turning its attention to cuts has driven the price of gold to a six-month high.

Line chart of $/ounce showing Gold rises to 6-month high on rate outlook

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party is fighting five state elections in a contest that will set the tone for next year’s national vote, with a resurgent opposition hoping that it can make gains and shock the political establishment.

Once dubbed a “fireproof house”, Canada has found itself sucked into a series of foreign policy dilemmas including spats with India and China, the two most populous nations and this century’s rising powers. This deep dive explains.

Monterrey, a business-friendly city a few hours’ drive from Texas, is a bellwether for Mexico’s ability to benefit from “nearshoring” as businesses rearrange supply chains in the face of geopolitical tensions.

Need to know: business

The value of “fine and rare” single malt whiskies has slumped as a faltering global economy dents the taste for luxury, undermining its hitherto status as among the best-performing alternative investments.

Anglo-US aviation start-up ZeroAvia has secured backing from the UK’s state-owned infrastructure investment bank to help it develop a hydrogen-electric engine for zero-emission flight.

ZeroAvia aircraft
ZeroAvia has now raised more than $250mn in equity investments and grants since it was launched © ZeroAvia

Novo Nordisk is in talks with healthcare systems about pricing models for its Wegovy weight loss drug, aiming to expand take-up by helping health services spread the cost across many years.

The boss of Germany’s second-largest steelmaker Salzgitter warned that big energy users must commit to the country to stave off the creeping deindustrialisation of Europe’s largest economy.

Citigroup, the world’s biggest financial services company, has suffered a collapsing share price and been hit by a series of scandals. The latest FT film discusses what went wrong and how the bank can turn itself round.

The World of Work

WeWork may have fallen into bankruptcy, but the concept of flexible offices or “flex space” looks set to endure as companies cut back on their permanent office footprint in the new world of hybrid working. Options range from timeshares to desks by the hour.

Why aren’t more women becoming CEOs? More companies offering equal parental leave rights would be a good step, argues the Lex column (for Premium subscribers).

Dual-scale line and column chart showing that Europe has a better gender balance among CEOs. Left-hand scale shows the number of men/women CEOs by region, for Latin-America, Asia-Pacific, Africa, North America and Europe. Right-hand scale shows the percentage of women CEOs in those regions.

A growing concern among some managers is that remote workers might secretly be taking on a second job or “double-dipping”, writes columnist Pilita Clark.

Why is it so difficult to have spontaneous fun nowadays? The end of the Monday-Friday 9-5 may make better use of resources but it is also making us lonelier, writes columnist Tim Harford.

Want to master the art of schmoozing? Listen to this edition of the Working It podcast recorded at the FT Weekend festival.

Some good news

You may remember we recently featured the finalists in the Comedy Wildlife Photo awards. The overall winner has now been announced: it’s Jason Moore’s ‘roo with air guitar.

‘I’m on the Highway to Hell, dur-dur . . . ‘ © Jason Moore/ Comedy Wildlife 2023

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