New massive deposits of lithium ore have been found in the wilderness of China’s southwestern Yunnan province, and a preliminary estimate by geologists with the Chinese Academy of Sciences has put the size of the new discovery at no less than five million metric tons.

The People’s Daily reported on Monday that the new deposits in a basin in Yunnan would have the potential to shed China’s reliance on imported ore and accelerate Beijing’s electric car drive. The report noted that explorations in Yunnan found around 340,000 tonnes of carbonate lithium ore in a two to 16-meter bed within an area of 7.2 square kilometers.

It remains to be seen how the latest discovery may alter China’s geological disadvantage, which saw the country contributing to a mere 7% of global lithium output in 2018, or about 8,000 tons. Still, China came third worldwide as measured by mining, after Australia and Chile.

Also, already home to some of the world’s largest battery manufacturers, China is also the largest importer of this soft, silvery-white alkali metal, according to data from Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

Meanwhile, about two million e-cars powered by lithium are expected to ply roads in China by 2020, according to government forecast.

Lithium ore, the mineral that propels global electric car industry. Photo: AFP
China alone will have about two million electric cars in use in 2020. Photo: Twitter

In total, about 56% of the world’s lithium mined and produced goes toward battery production. According to the US Geological Survey, lithium consumption for batteries has increased significantly in recent years due to the use of rechargeable lithium batteries in electronic devices and vehicles.

The latest data from the US Geological Survey shows that the world’s top lithium producers are scouring their lands and mines to cash in on the rising demand – worldwide lithium supply rose roughly 23% from 2017 to 2018, coming in at 85,000 tons – as lithium-ion batteries continue their reign as the top batteries for e-cars.

There have been reports that Chinese companies are snapping up lithium mines overseas. The latest such asset acquirer was Tianqi Lithium, based in the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu, which paid US$4.1 billion in May 2018 for a 24% stake in Chile’s Sociedad Química y Minera, the world’s second-biggest producer of lithium, according to the South China Morning Post.

Also, Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium, one of China’s largest producers of the battery metal, floated its shares on the Hong Kong bourse last year to fund the development of a mining project in Argentina.

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