Who Wants Afghanistan’s Lithium: China’s Electric Vehicle Players

Even though we’ve tried to help kill the phrase “the Saudi Arabia of [insert industry here],” we’re going to bring it back one last time. According to an article in the New York Times this weekend, Afghanistan could be the new “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” after analysis from the Pentagon has emerged that suggests that Afghanistan could have lithium deposits as big as those of Bolivia, which currently has the world’s largest.

This finding could shape the future of the electric vehicle market given lithium is one of the fundamental resources used in the batteries of the next-generation of electric vehicles, including GM’s Chevy Volt, Toyota’s plug-in Prius, and electric versions of the Daimler Smart and BMW Mini.

So who will likely be the most aggressive when it comes to going after these lithium reserves? Potentially China’s electric vehicle players. China is swiftly becoming an electric vehicle powerhouse, recently surpassing the U.S. as the world’s largest automobile industry. Legacy car companies in North America, Europe and Japan haven’t yet mastered the EV technology, so moving early and fast could allow China-based companies to grab a lead in the nascent market. Chinese automakers, like BYD (which also makes batteries and counts Warren Buffett among its backers,) Chery and Geely, have been moving aggressively into electric vehicles, and global automakers like Daimler have been eager to set up partnerships with the Chinese firms.

The Chinese government has also declared a strong commitment to electric vehicles and has provided subsidies for research and electric vehicle purchases. As China’s vice minister for industry and information technology, Miao Wei, a former Dongfeng Motor chairman, told the New York Times earlier this year, “the Chinese auto industry cannot grow sustainably” unless the “bottlenecks” of air pollution, rising consumption of imported oil and traffic congestion are addressed.

China, which shares a Northeast border with Afghanistan, already seems to have an inkling for some of the untapped resources in the war-torn country. The New York Times reports that last year, Afghanistan’s minister of mines (who has since been replaced) was accused by American officials of accepting a $30 million bribe to award China the rights to develop a copper mine in Logar Province.

“China wants to be the leader in the lithium ion battery market, and I’m sure they’re very interested in getting their hands on Afghanistan’s reserves, particularly given how close they are to it,” says Lux Research analyst Jacob Grose. China’s own domestic lithium reserves — which stands at 1,100,000 tons in its reserve base, and delivers about 3,000 usable tons onto the market each year, according to the United States Geological Services’ Mineral Resources Department — are mostly extracted with conventional mining techniques. That means Chinese lithium can be more expensive to mine than lithium found within salt lakes, which can be processed with evaporation, and are found in South America — and now Afghanistan.

But Lux’s Grose also thinks that the same types of political problems that have plagued Bolivia, and kept Bolivia’s lithium resources far under utilized (despite 5.4 million in reserves it produces very little) will mean Afghanistan’s lithium resources won’t affect the market at least over the next five years. Bolivia has more than half of the planet’s total lithium deposits in the brine beneath its plains but the Bolivian government has been none too keen on giving up its resources to foreign miners. According to Time, Mitsubishi and Toyota (one of the only major automakers that produces its own batteries) have broached talks about lithium development with Bolivian officials, with no luck.

“Afghanistan has ten times more problems than Bolivia,” notes Grose. Just the cost of securing the location through military forces could make producing Afghan lithium not economical.

Then there’s the fact that the Pentagon and the New York Times are entirely vague on just how much lithium reserves are thought to be in Afghanistan, so it’s hard to determine if the size would actually be a game-changer. The known lithium reserves before this Afghanistan find are around 13 million tons globally, and 760,000 tons in the U.S. Chile is the leading producer, followed by Argentina, China, Russia and the U.S.

Still if Afghanistan’s lithium reserves are ever fully developed — by Chinese EV battery giants or not — the more lithium available for the coming electric vehicle boom will only help the market. The U.S. Geological Survey’s mineral commodity specialist on lithium, Brian Jaskula, has estimated that demand will begin to drive lithium prices up in the next 10 to 15 years and that lithium, which now costs less than a buck per kilogram, will not stay cheap for long. More available reserves, could help alleviate that price crunch.

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