Lithium refining is a ‘license to print money,’ Musk says

‘I’d like to once again urge entrepreneurs to enter the lithium refining business. The mining is relatively easy, the refining is much harder,’ Elon Musk said.
Image: Bloomberg

Elon Musk has called for more investment in global lithium refining to ease shortages in battery materials — and promised those who seize the opportunity it’s as lucrative as “basically minting money.”

“I’d like to once again urge entrepreneurs to enter the lithium refining business. The mining is relatively easy, the refining is much harder,” Tesla Inc.’s Chief Executive Officer Musk said on a Wednesday earnings call, adding there are software-like margins to be made in lithium processing. “You can’t lose, it’s a license to print money.”

Constraints on availability of lithium that have sent prices surging aren’t the result of scarcity of raw materials, but because of limited global capacity to deliver ultra-high purity battery-grade hydroxide and carbonate chemicals into battery supply chains, he said. Lithium carbonate prices in China have jumped almost 450% in the past year.

Refining is “quite difficult and requires a massive amount of machinery and it’s a hard thing to scale”, Musk said. China accounts for more than half of all existing lithium refining capacity, though suppliers are adding projects in other hubs. Tianqi Lithium Corp. delivered its first batch from a new Australian operation in May.

Australia should aim to add more refining and manufacturing capacity to help the world meet surging demand for batteries, Tesla Chair Robyn Denholm said this week. Projects are also being added in locations including Chile, Argentina and the US.

Tesla is building a cathode facility in Texas and is working on lithium refining activity. “If our suppliers don’t solve these problems, then we will,”  Musk said.

The company sees signs some other materials prices — including steel and aluminium — are on a downward trajectory,  and expects to see the benefits as soon as later this year.

© 2022 Bloomberg

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