Elon Musk and Exxon talked up a key ingredient in EVs this yr. This is why

Elon Musk and Exxon talked up a key ingredient in EVs this year. Here's why


A important mineral used to make electrical automobile batteries gained vital consideration from business leaders in 2023. 

Tesla (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk has described lithium batteries as “the brand new oil.” Earlier this yr he urged entrepreneurs to provide extra lithium amid a refining capability “choke level.”

“As an alternative of constructing an image sharing app, please refine lithium,” Musk mentioned on Tesla’s earnings name in April. 

Then final month oil large ExxonMobil (XOM) introduced plans to extract lithium in southern Arkansas in a bid to develop into a key provider of the fabric.

Worldwide demand for lithium is anticipated to double between 2025 and 2030 as extra customers purchase electrical automobiles. EVs are anticipated to make up about half of new automobile gross sales worldwide by 2035, based on Goldman Sachs analysis.

The EV market share within the US lately hit 7.9% — its highest-ever stage, with gross sales within the third quarter of this yr leaping by practically 50% from a yr in the past to 313,000.

The federal government goals to have 50% of all new automobile gross sales be electrical by 2030. The Biden administration’s Inflation Discount Act (IRA) handed final yr incentivizes EV adoption by providing $7,500 tax credit to qualifying households.

“We’re having in all probability extra of the truth checkpoint in time the place folks notice there’s plenty of lithium, however having plenty of lithium is one factor. Getting it out of the bottom is completely totally different,” mentioned Graham Harris, chairman of Surge Battery Metals (NILI.V), the developer of a lithium claystone venture in Elko County, Nevada. 

Harris factors out the US continues to be within the technique of constructing out the extraction and refining infrastructure. Presently the US solely produces about 1% of worldwide lithium provide.

“I believe the main focus subsequent yr and for the approaching years goes be on the home lithium provide,” he added.

Softer EV demand in 2023 drags down costs

Amid initiatives to develop lithium manufacturing within the US, costs have plunged this yr. 

The important silvery-white gentle metallic just isn’t traded on a serious change, and contracts between patrons and sellers are saved personal. Nevertheless, costs in China, that are made public, present a steep decline yr thus far. 

Costs reached all-time highs, surging past $80,000 per metric ton, in 2022 however dropped beneath $20,000 in November. 

Final month North Carolina-based lithium producer Albemarle (ALB) minimize its 2023 full-year steering citing “softer” market pricing.

“Whereas the US and Europe make up solely about one-third of complete EV manufacturing in ’23 and ’24, near-term we see potential challenges for EV progress in these areas associated to financial softness and better rates of interest,” Kent Masters, CEO of Albemarle, mentioned through the firm’s third quarter earnings name.

Decreased EV forecasts amid excessive rates of interest and affordability considerations level to “lithium demand progress declines from 30% Y/Y to 22% in 2024, and leads to lithium over-supply earlier than anticipated,” wrote UBS analyst Joshua Spector and his group in a latest be aware to shoppers.

However this yr’s challenges surrounding lithium are possible non permanent, Harris mentioned. 

“I do suppose we’ll are available in for one more severe crunch within the lithium provide,” he added.

Lengthy-term challenges for lithium

The elevated US consideration on lithium comes from its ambition to develop into battery-independent. A lot of the world’s refinery of the light-weight metallic occurs in China. The nation’s battery producers provide an estimated 80% of cells worldwide.

It is going to take years for US producers to interrupt into the lithium market, says Irina Tsukerman, president of market analysis and geopolitical danger advisory Scarab Rising. She is bearish on America’s prospects for the important mineral. 

“I consider within the very long run, its future is definitely doomed,” she mentioned. “It’s very tough to refine. The issue is lithium’s refinery course of has grew to become principally a monopoly of China.”

Some producers are racing to develop applied sciences that might change lithium in the long term. 

Chinese language EV maker BYD plans to construct a $1.4 billion sodium-ion battery plant, and Sweden’s Northvolt AB lately introduced a serious breakthrough: It developed a battery with out important minerals in it.

Harris, of Surge Battery Metals, mentioned he would not see a shift in demand for lithium coming anytime quickly, although.  

“It is taken a very long time for lithium-ion expertise to be the business expertise of alternative,” he mentioned. 

“There could also be at some point one other expertise that comes alongside and surpasses this by way of with the ability to scale it and do it economically,” he added, “However not within the close to future.”

Ines Ferre is a senior enterprise reporter for Yahoo Finance. Comply with her on Twitter at @ines_ferre.

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