Albemarle Corp. opened an additional plant Monday at its lithium production site in Antofagasta, Chile, part of a strategy of helping to meet spiraling global demand from electric vehicles and high-tech devices.
The company, which is headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, indicated the project cost more than $100 million. It did not disclose the capacity of the new plant but said it will double the site’s output of lithium carbonate.
Lithium derivatives are used as thickeners in approximately three-fourths of the world’s industrial greases, but competing demand from EV batteries had risen rapidly the past several years due to the steep growth in EV sales. Lithium prices have been driven sharply upward, pushing some grease suppliers to consider other thickening chemistries.
EV batteries are now one of the largest applications for lithium, and demand is expected to continue rising fast in coming years.
Consequently companies around the world are scrambling to ramp up production. Chile was formerly the world’s largest supplier of the mineral but was passed in recent years by Australia and China. The South American nation still has by far the largest known reserves, and last year announced an initiative to reclaim the top spot by opening tenders aimed at increasing its production several-fold.
The plan generated some controversy, though, chiefly around the issue of water consumption. In Chile lithium is harvested from desert salt flats by making salt brines and then allowing the water to evaporate, leaving the raw mineral to be processed. Residents in the area, many of them indigenous, have complained that the lithium operations consume too much water, leaving too little of the precious resource for them.
Albemarle officials said the new plant will reduce impact on water resources. Among the equipment installed was a $100 million thermal evaporator that recycles water, reducing its consumption by 30%
“With this expansion, Albemarle is supporting the global energy transition and, at the same time, we are working together with the local communities to support the economy, the people and the environment of the areas in which we operate,” Ignacio Mehech, vice president of external affairs and country manager of Albemarle Chile, said in a news release.
Albemarle is one of two main lithium producers in Chile, along with SQM, a domestic company. Last year neighboring residents sought to have an SQM license revoked based on allegations that the company was drawing more water than permitted. The company subsequently submitted a proposal to reduce its usage.