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The New "White Gold" Rush: Inside the Booming World of Lithium Mining

Lithium has been called the new oil, the new gold, and most aptly, the "white gold" of the 21st century. This soft, silvery-white metal has become one of the most sought-after commodities on the planet thanks to its essential role in powering the rechargeable batteries at the heart of the electric vehicle (EV) and renewable energy revolutions.

As the world races to electrify transportation and decarbonize the grid to combat climate change, demand for lithium is going through the roof. Global EV sales more than doubled to 6.6 million units in 2021 and are projected to reach 20.6 million by 2025 and 70 million by 2040, according to BloombergNEF. Meeting this demand could require up to 2.4 million metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) annually by 2030 – a nearly tenfold increase from 2020 levels.

This surging demand has sparked a 21st-century gold rush as the world‘s biggest mining companies scramble to boost production and secure long-term supply. Lithium prices have spiked to record highs, with battery-grade lithium carbonate averaging over $70,000 per ton in 2022, up from just $6,000 per ton in 2020. Lithium mining stocks have been some of the hottest investments around, with the Global X Lithium & Battery Tech ETF ($LIT) surging over 200% since 2020.

But as with any boom, there are also significant challenges and risks. Lithium extraction is often water and carbon intensive, with major mines concentrated in ecologically sensitive areas like Chile‘s Atacama Desert and Western Australia‘s Outback. There are concerns about the industry‘s environmental and social impacts, as well as its vulnerability to geopolitical tensions and supply chain shocks. And with the US and Europe racing to catch up to China‘s dominance in batteries, the lithium market is becoming an increasingly heated front in the clean energy arms race.

So who are the companies leading the charge in this new "white gold" rush? Here‘s a deep dive into the 10 largest lithium mining companies in the world by market capitalization.

1. Albemarle (NYSE:ALB)

  • Market cap: $32.6 billion
  • 2021 lithium sales: $871 million (+127% YoY)
  • Lithium as % of total revenue: 41%
  • Production capacity (2021): 85,000 metric tons LCE
  • Production capacity target (2025): 225-265,000 metric tons LCE

Albemarle is the kingpin of the lithium world, with a 21% global market share in lithium chemicals. The Charlotte, NC-based company has a diversified asset base across brine and hard rock operations in Chile, Australia, China, and the US, as well as a 49% stake in the massive Greenbushes mine in Australia. Albemarle is the largest provider of battery-grade lithium hydroxide to the EV industry and counts Tesla, LG Energy Solution, and CATL among its top customers.

Albemarle has been aggressively expanding its lithium footprint to capitalize on the EV boom. The company is investing over $1.5 billion to more than double its lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide capacity in Chile, Australia, and China by 2025. It‘s also building a $1.3 billion lithium hydroxide plant in South Carolina in partnership with EV battery maker Livent.

Albemarle‘s lithium segment has been a cash cow, with an EBITDA margin of nearly 40% in 2021. The company expects lithium demand to grow 30% annually through 2030 and is targeting $4-5 billion in lithium sales by 2027 – a fivefold increase from 2021. However, Albemarle also faces risks from water rights disputes, resource nationalism, and cost inflation in key markets like Chile.

2. Ganfeng Lithium (HKG:1772)

  • Market cap: $28.7 billion
  • 2021 lithium sales: $1.2 billion (+234% YoY)
  • Lithium as % of total revenue: 74%
  • Production capacity (2021): 120,000 metric tons LCE
  • Production capacity target (2025): 600,000 metric tons LCE

Ganfeng is the world‘s largest lithium chemical supplier, with a vertically integrated business model spanning resource development, refining, and battery recycling. The Jiangxi, China-based company has stakes in premier brine and hard rock projects in China, Australia, Argentina, and Mexico, as well as over 100,000 tons per annum of lithium processing capacity.

Ganfeng has been on an acquisition spree to expand its global footprint and lock up long-term supply. In 2021 alone, the company acquired the Bacanora claystone project in Mexico for $264 million, increased its stake in the Cauchari-Olaroz brine project in Argentina to 51%, and paid $130 million for half of a Goulamina hard rock project in Mali. Ganfeng also has multi-year supply agreements with top tier customers including Tesla, LG Energy Solution, and Volkswagen.

Ganfeng is investing over $1.5 billion to build out its lithium mining and processing empire, with a target to reach 600,000 tons per annum of LCE capacity by 2025. The company is a leader in direct lithium extraction (DLE) technologies that can slash production times, boost recoveries, and reduce freshwater usage compared to conventional brine evaporation. It‘s also building China‘s largest battery recycling plant to create a closed-loop supply chain.


  • Market cap: $27.2 billion
  • 2021 lithium sales: $986 million (+110% YoY)
  • Lithium as % of total revenue: 39%
  • Production capacity (2021): 140,000 metric tons LCE
  • Production capacity target (2025): 210-250,000 metric tons LCE

Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (SQM) is the world‘s lowest-cost lithium producer thanks to its massive brine operations in Chile‘s Salar de Atacama. The Santiago-based company has rights to extract up to 216,000 tons per annum of lithium from the salar through 2030, with options to extend through 2050. SQM also produces potassium, iodine, and industrial chemicals.

SQM has been expanding its lithium production by debottlenecking its Chilean operations and developing new projects in Australia and Argentina. The company is investing $1.5 billion to boost its lithium carbonate capacity in Chile to 210,000 tons per annum by 2023 and add 40,000 tons per annum of lithium hydroxide capacity in Western Australia in partnership with Wesfarmers.

However, SQM has faced challenges in its home market, including a royalty dispute with Chilean development agency Corfo and opposition from indigenous communities over water usage. The Chilean government‘s recent move to nationalize its lithium industry could also impact SQM‘s expansion plans. As a result, the company is diversifying its lithium footprint through joint ventures in Australia, Argentina, and potentially China.

4. Tianqi Lithium (SZA:002466)

  • Market cap: $26.8 billion
  • 2021 lithium sales: $1.1 billion (+171% YoY)
  • Lithium as % of total revenue: 88%
  • Production capacity (2021): 75,000 metric tons LCE
  • Production capacity target (2025): 250,000 metric tons LCE

Tianqi Lithium is China‘s largest hard rock lithium producer, with operations spanning Australia, Chile, and China. The Chengdu-based company made headlines in 2018 when it acquired a 23.8% stake in SQM for $4.1 billion, briefly giving it control over 46% of the world‘s lithium supply. However, the debt-fueled deal became a burden when lithium prices subsequently crashed, forcing Tianqi to sell part of its Australian assets to IGO Ltd for $1.4 billion in 2020.

Tianqi has since rebounded strongly on the back of soaring lithium prices. The company posted a record net profit of $954 million in 2021 and is plowing its windfall into capacity expansion. Tianqi is investing over $2 billion to boost its lithium hydroxide capacity in Australia and China to 150,000 tons per annum by 2023 and add 25,000 tons per annum of lithium carbonate capacity in Chile by 2024.

Tianqi is also a leader in battery recycling through its 50% stake in Australia‘s Lithium Valley Waste Management. The joint venture is building a 10,000 ton per annum lithium-ion battery recycling plant in Western Australia to recover critical minerals from spent EV and energy storage batteries. Tianqi sees recycling as a key part of its strategy to build a closed-loop lithium supply chain.

5. Mineral Resources (ASX:MIN)

  • Market cap: $12.4 billion
  • 2021 lithium sales: $1.1 billion (+144% YoY)
  • Lithium as % of total revenue: 60%
  • Production capacity (2021): 65,000 metric tons LCE
  • Production capacity target (2025): 150-200,000 metric tons LCE

Mineral Resources is an Australian mining services company that has become a major force in lithium through its 40% stake in the Greenbushes mine and 100% ownership of the Wodgina hard rock project in Western Australia. The Perth-based company also has a 50/50 joint venture with Albemarle to build a 50,000 ton per annum lithium hydroxide plant in Western Australia.

Mineral Resources has been cashing in on the lithium boom, with its lithium EBITDA surging more than tenfold to $911 million in fiscal 2022. The company is investing over $2 billion to expand its Wodgina mine and build out its lithium hydroxide capacity to 150,000 tons per annum by 2025. It‘s also studying a potential 50,000 ton per annum lithium sulfate plant to supply the growing market for lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries.

Mineral Resources sees significant upside in lithium prices and demand through 2030 and is positioning itself as a key supplier to the global EV battery supply chain. The company recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Ford Motor to supply lithium from its Wodgina mine and is exploring similar partnerships with other automakers and battery manufacturers.

Lithium Producers by Market Cap and Production

Company Market Cap ($ bn) 2021 Lithium Sales ($ mn) Lithium as % of Revenue 2021 Production Capacity (mt LCE) 2025 Target Capacity (mt LCE)
Albemarle $32.6 $871 (+127% YoY) 41% 85,000 225-265,000
Ganfeng Lithium $28.7 $1,200 (+234% YoY) 74% 120,000 600,000
SQM $27.2 $986 (+110% YoY) 39% 140,000 210-250,000
Tianqi Lithium $26.8 $1,100 (+171% YoY) 88% 75,000 250,000
Mineral Resources $12.4 $1,100 (+144% YoY) 60% 65,000 150-200,000
Livent $6.6 $420 (+55% YoY) 100% 25,000 100,000
IGO Ltd $6.5 $244 (+279% YoY) 25% 24,000 50,000
Pilbara Minerals $6.4 $361 (+668% YoY) 100% 40,000 130,000
Allkem $6.4 $215 (+328% YoY) 100% 12,000 50-75,000

*Data compiled from company reports

Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

The lithium industry faces significant challenges as it scales up to meet the exponential growth in EV demand. On the supply side, developing new brine and hard rock projects can take years and billions of dollars, with major technical, regulatory, and social hurdles. Lithium grades are declining and orebodies are becoming more complex, driving up costs.

There are growing concerns about the environmental and social impacts of lithium mining, particularly in water-scarce regions like the Lithium Triangle of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. Extracting a ton of lithium from brine can consume up to 500,000 gallons of water, often in competition with local communities and ecosystems. Hard rock mining and processing are energy and carbon intensive, generating significant waste.

The industry is investing in new technologies and processes to reduce its environmental footprint and improve efficiency. These include direct lithium extraction (DLE) methods that can slash water usage by 50% or more, as well as renewable-powered mines and zero-emission processing. Battery recycling is also emerging as a promising source of sustainable lithium supply, with companies like Li-Cycle, Redwood Materials, and American Battery Technology developing innovative recycling solutions.

On the demand side, the lithium market remains highly concentrated and sensitive to policy changes and economic cycles. Over 75% of lithium demand comes from China, which has strategic dominance over the global battery supply chain. This has raised concerns about supply security and geopolitical risk, particularly as tensions between the US and China escalate.

The US, European Union, Canada, and Australia are all pursuing ambitious plans to build domestic battery supply chains and reduce reliance on China. The US Inflation Reduction Act includes $7 billion in grants and loans for battery material processing and cell manufacturing, while the EU is targeting 30 million EVs on the road by 2030 and building a European Battery Alliance. However, these efforts will take years to scale and may not be enough to loosen China‘s grip on the market.

There are also questions about the long-term sustainability of lithium-ion batteries as the dominant EV technology. While lithium-ion has made remarkable progress in cost and performance, it still faces challenges in energy density, charging speed, and safety. Competing battery chemistries like sodium-ion, solid-state, and lithium-sulfur offer the potential for step-change improvements that could reduce lithium intensity. However, these technologies are still years away from commercial viability.

Despite these challenges, the outlook for lithium demand and prices remains bullish. Benchmark Minerals forecasts that lithium chemical demand will grow at a 25-30% compound annual rate through 2030, driven by the unstoppable momentum of passenger EV adoption and the rise of stationary storage. Even with aggressive supply growth, the market is expected to remain tight, with prices stabilizing above long-term incentive levels of $12,000-15,000 per ton.

This presents a compelling opportunity for lithium miners that can navigate the industry‘s complex challenges and deliver reliable, sustainable supply. The leading companies profiled here are well positioned to benefit from the lithium supercycle, with world-class assets, strong customer relationships, and robust balance sheets. However, they will need to continue innovating and investing to stay ahead of the curve in a rapidly evolving market.

In the words of Albemarle CEO Kent Masters, "It‘s a great time to be in lithium. The EV growth is very real, the OEMs are committed, governments around the world are committed to incentivizing EVs and to building supply chains, and we see that driving 30+% growth in lithium demand over the next decade. We believe this is a stronger for longer market and we‘re investing to grow with it."