Introduction to lithium carbonate - basic knowledge and industry overview

Lithium carbonate plays an important position in the battery industry chain. This article will share the basic knowledge and characteristics of lithium carbonate, use, production process, industry overview and so on.
Table of Contents

Basic attributes of lithium carbonate

Lithium carbonate is a kind of basic lithium salt, the chemical molecular formula is Li2CO3, is a colorless monoclinic crystal or white powder, belongs to the inorganic compound, slightly soluble in water, dilute acid, insoluble in ethanol and acetone.

Types and applications of lithium carbonate

Industrial grade lithium carbonate, battery grade lithium carbonate, these two kinds of lithium carbonate content is different. Among them, industrial grade lithium carbonate can be used in the preparation of energy storage type lithium iron phosphate, lithium manganese oxide products, and widely used in glass, ceramics, synthetic rubber, medicine and other industries;

Battery grade lithium carbonate is generally used in the preparation of lithium cobalt oxide, medium and low nickel ternary materials, power type lithium iron phosphate like electric motorcycle battery pack and other products.

Capacity distribution and production process of lithium carbonate

Lithium carbonate products rely heavily on resources and have a strong regional area. In East China, lithium is mainly extracted by lithium micite ore and waste recycling, which is relatively concentrated in Jiangxi Province; Southwest China is the main producing area with Sichuan Province as the core; and northwest China is based on the salt lake resources of Qinghai Province.

Due to the different sources of raw materials, the production process of lithium carbonate also has great differences. The development of spodumene lithium extraction technology has been relatively mature, the lithium recovery rate is high, and the entry threshold is low. The mainstream lithium battery technology enterprises are continuing to improve the recovery rate, reduce the ore single consumption and expand the production capacity through technological transformation.


In terms of the lithium extraction process of salt lake brine, there is a big gap between magnesium and lithium ratio, so the lithium extraction process used in each salt lake needs to fit its own resource situation.

At present, the adsorption method used in Qarhan Salt Lake can produce battery-grade lithium carbonate in small batches. Dongtai Jiner Salt Lake, due to its low magnesium-lithium capacity, can produce quasi-battery-grade products and enter part of the battery materials supply chain.

The applicability of lithium extraction technology is relatively simple. At present, no industrial lithium extraction technology can adapt to all types of salt lake brine. Only by comprehensive application of different lithium extraction technologies can the lithium resources in the salt lake be recovered more efficiently.

Upper and downstream profiles of lithium carbonate

Lithium carbonate in the industry chain in the upstream processing link, upstream raw materials for lithium, lithium mica, lithium lithium resources, brine, direct downstream products are lithium battery cathode materials (lithium iron phosphate, ternary materials, lithium cobalt acid, lithium acid, manganese acid), glass, ceramics, rubber and other industries.

The cathode material is the largest direct downstream industry, lithium carbonate consumption at 84.2%, according to the different cathode material products, the single consumption of lithium carbonate in 0.2-0.4 tons.


Cost composition of lithium carbonate

The cost of producing lithium carbonate from different raw materials is quite different. For lithium extraction, the cost of salt lake brine is 3000-4000 RMB / ton. Different salt lakes have different processes, and the approximate cost is within 20,000 RMB / ton-40,000 RMB / ton.

Spodumene raises lithium. Based on the lithium oxide content of 6% lithium concentrate, 8 tons of lithium concentrate can produce 1 ton of lithium carbonate, and the raw material cost fluctuates with the price fluctuation of lithium concentrate.

Lithium extraction, the lithium content of lithium oxide in lithium micite is low. 2% considering the yield, 17-20 tons are required to produce 1 ton of lithium carbonate, and the raw material cost fluctuates with the price fluctuation of lithium micite.

Development overview of lithium carbonate industry

Lithium carbonate products are in the growth stage. With the gradual increase of the supply growth rate, the industry will gradually transition to the mature period in the next few years. It is difficult to obtain the upstream raw material resources of lithium carbonate, the enterprise operating capital requirement is high, the industry threshold is high, and the listed companies, state-owned and joint venture enterprises account for a large proportion.

The acquisition, investment and expansion of head enterprises are the main ways for Chinese lithium carbonate enterprises to expand their capacity and extend downstream enterprises upward in recent years. Small and medium-sized enterprises in recent years, part of the gradually transformed into processing production.

Lithium carbonate supply and demand structure changes

In terms of the scale of lithium carbonate production enterprises in China, the number of enterprises with a production capacity of less than 20,000 tons per year accounts for about 75%. The problems such as the difficulty in obtaining raw materials and the technical level are the factors restricting the production capacity of enterprises.

The main application field of lithium carbonate in China is in the lithium battery industry, and the consumption proportion of lithium carbonate is increasing year by year, and the development of lithium carbonate products is closely related to the lithium battery industry.

From the perspective of supply and demand structure, the supply and demand pattern of lithium carbonate in China has been changed for many times. In the past five years, China’s lithium carbonate industry has shifted from oversupply to supply shortage, and 2020 is the time point for the change of the supply and demand structure of the industry.

In 2020, the policy side is favorable for the development of the terminal industry, driving the midstream material enterprises to put into production concentration, while the battery production cycle of lithium carbonate devices is long, resulting in the incremental rate of domestic supply is slower than the growth of demand.

2022 is the last year of new energy subsidies. In the second half of the year, the terminal industry actively produces and sells, and the buyers grab goods in advance to promote the continuous tightening of lithium salt supply in the spot market.

At the beginning of 2023, the terminal consumption was halved, and all links of the industrial chain entered the stage of destocking, and the situation of short supply of lithium carbonate was significantly alleviated.


Lithium carbonate import market

China is rich in lithium resources, but the distribution is uneven and the exploitation is difficult. Most of the supply of lithium carbonate is imported. In recent years, China’s import dependence on lithium carbonate has gradually increased to about 30%.

Chile and Argentina, as the main producers of lithium carbonate, import more than 97% of lithium carbonate from these two countries, of which Chile accounts for nearly 90%. Nearly 80% of the imported lithium carbonate supply was imported from enterprises in East China, and driven by the increasing demand, the import proportion of enterprises in Shanghai, Fujian and Guangdong increased year by year.


Price change of lithium carbonate

In recent years, the market price of lithium carbonate is characterized by the characteristics of large price span and accelerated price fluctuation. The supply and demand, cost, policy, capital, news and so on are all important factors in the market price change. Around 2015, the supply and demand of China’s lithium carbonate industry were both weakened.

In 2016, the gradual development of new energy vehicles promoted the increase of demand, and the price of lithium carbonate rose to the level of about 170,000 RMB / ton. In 2018-2020, the supply of products was surplus, and the price of lithium carbonate fell all the way to about 40,000 RMB tons in the middle of 2020.

With favorable policies, rising consumption and the improvement of industrial chain demand, the market price will start to rise for two and a half years after the middle of 2020. In the middle of November 2022, the market price of lithium carbonate exceeded 600,000 RMB / ton.

Subsequently, the terminal subsidy policy is about to come to an end, the replenishment sentiment in the buyer’s market is weakened, and the price of lithium carbonate hit the top and fell. In five months, the price of lithium carbonate fell to the level below 150,000 RMB / ton. The price overfell to below the cost line, and the price was adjusted to the level of about 300,000 RMB / ton in late April.


Future development of lithium carbonate

Lithium carbonate and downstream industries belong to more obvious demand-oriented industries, and the changes of terminal consumer market directly affect the middle and upstream product market of the industrial chain. Looking forward to the future, the development of terminal new energy vehicles and energy storage market is an important factor affecting the improvement of the price, profit and supply of lithium carbonate products.

With the progress of the development of lithium resources outside China, the planned capacity of lithium carbonate will be gradually released, and the supply structure will be relaxed; the terminal new energy vehicles and energy storage market will continue to develop in the next few years until the demand becomes saturated, and the export of end products such as lithium batteries, new energy vehicles and energy storage batteries is another development direction of demand growth.

In the long run, the supply and demand structure tends to be stable, and the price fluctuation space of lithium carbonate is expected to gradually narrow. However, it should be noted that in recent years, the new energy industry has high attention, lithium carbonate link is also the focus of capital attention, the market mentality to gradually strengthen the price effect.

In addition, the new energy industry technology innovation speed, sodium battery and hydrogen fuel cell alternatives develop rapidly, how the future battery industry pattern will affect the development of lithium battery, thus affecting the demand for lithium carbonate.

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