Flat lithium sector shows early signs of re-charge

Barry FitzGerald

Independent Journalist

After falling sharply over the past six months, there is fresh hope that lithium prices could be set for a comeback as demand from the EV market surges. Albermarle, for one, believes demand will more than triple over the next six years. Plus, lithium junior Galan soars ahead of results.     

The Western Australian hard-rock lithium brigade got beaten up something shocking last year as contracted prices for 6% spodumene weakened from more than $US1,000t in the September quarter to $USUS930/t in the December quarter.

Prices - based on quarterly pricing for the Mt Marion project kindly posted by Mineral Resources (MIN) – have fallen further for the current March quarter to $US791/t, which when stacked up against forecast production costs and a friendly US70c exchange rate, is still not all that bad.

But the real twist here is that the WA lithium stocks without particular issues – and there a couple out there – have been on a bit of a tear since mid-December. Lead examples are Pilbara Minerals (PLS) and Kidman (KDR) which are up by 27% and 30% respectively in the period.

While the share price bounce has been off beaten-down levels, it does go to the idea that there is good reason to think that the big thematic that drove lithium and stock prices wild between early 2016 and late 2017 is startling to bubble again.

The thematic was that the world would struggle to supply the lithium battery needs (which apart from lithium, takes in graphite, cobalt, nickel, manganese, tin and so on) of the revolution in electric vehicles and the storage of renewable energy.

If there was a particular reason behind the rally in WA lithium stocks kicking off in mid-December, it had to be the deal announced at the time between Mineral Resources and global lithium industry leader, US group Albemarle Corp (US:ALB), on the Wodgina project.

Mineral Resources is up by 12% (with the help of iron ore price strength) and Albemarle has gained 13% since the formation of the 50:50 joint venture (with Albemarle having 100% of the marketing rights) was announced.

More to the point here though is that by buying a 50% stake in Wodgina and hitching itself to the development of a 100,000tpa lithium hydroxide plant at the WA site, industry leader Albemarle has effectively slapped down $US2 billion to do nothing more than maintain its long-run market share in lithium, such is the strength in forecast demand growth and the required supply response.

A recent demand forecast by Albemarle highlights the scale of the challenge. From actual demand of about 270,000t of lithium in 2018, Albemarle now forecasts 21% compound growth to about 1mt in 2025 and possibly as high as 1.2mt.

That is up from last year’s 800,000t forecast and reflects super-charged demand from the battery makers supplying the electric vehicle market. Even with the big integrated producers like Albemarle cranking things up, the 2025 demand from an accelerating green world is one mighty big challenge. Impossible, some would say.


The big challenge ahead is why the lithium explorers with advanced projects can be expected to come back into fashion before long. 

Liontown Resources (LTR) was mentioned here on January 25 as one those ready to ride the demand wave with its so-called second generation of lithium projects that will be needed to meet 2025 demand projections, let alone what follows as the world turns its back on fossil fuels.

But today’s interest is in Galan Lithium (GLN). It is already back in fashion. Get this, it went in to a trading halt on March 4 because its share price was soaring ahead of the release of a drilling update at its Candelas lithium brine project in Argentina.

If only the rest of the junior exploration sector had such a problem.

Candelas covers a long, wide and deep channel (Los Patos) feeding the famed Hombre Muerto salar which is home to the long-established Tier 1 operation of US group Livent (US:LTHM) and those of Posco (US:PKX).

Australia’s own Galaxy (GXY) is there with its Sal de Vida project which sits immediately north of Candelas. Galaxy also recently pulled in $US280m by selling its northern Hombre Muerto tenements to Posco, such is the high-rating of salar.

The only problem for Galan was that the Los Patos channel was not considered prospective for lithium brines. That all changed in a big way in February when the maiden drill hole intersected the right sort of stuff.

Galan’s technical consultant, SRK Consulting (Argentina), was to follow up a week later with the comment that based on preliminary field measurements and lab analyses of the brine, Candelas “has the potential to become a world-class soluble deposit hosted in a unique geological setting”.

Enough said. Galan raced from 33c at the time of the discovery hole to 61.5c to before asking to go in a trading halt pending the release of results from its latest drilling. It has been amazing stuff given Galan only acquired the Candelas interest last year when it was trading under the name of Dempsey Minerals.

It is now a $69m company.

But that does not mean much if the discovery hole is followed up with equally strong results in the initially planned 5-hole program along the 15km stretch of the Los Patos channel.

The Galaxy-Posco deal on Galaxy’s northern tenements showed that.

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Barry FitzGerald
Independent Journalist

One of Australia’s leading business journalists, Barry FitzGerald, highlights the issues, opportunities and challenges for small and mid-cap resources stocks, and most recently penned his column for The Australian newspaper.

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