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商业 - 科技

电动汽车带动锂电池热,但为什么锂矿行业的创业公司纷纷停产?

David Z. Morris 2015年05月05日

在2002至2012年的10年间,全球对锂的消费量几乎翻了一倍。尽管市场对锂的需求越来越大,但携带新技术涌入锂行业的初创公司却处境艰难。一方面,市场需求的增幅并未达到创业者的预期,更重要的是,开采成本相对低廉的优质锂矿基本上都掌握在大公司手中。3家锂行业的初创公司先后停产。

    碳酸锂由于具备一定的镇定作用,现在全球约5%的产量现在流入了制药市场。然而,随着市场对锂的需求越来越大,锂行业的投资人和采矿商的命运却几乎截然相反。

    在2002至2012年的10年间,全球对锂的消费量几乎翻了一倍,这主要归功于智能手机和电动工具对锂离子电池的使用。随着电动汽车的崛起,市场对锂的需求还将继续增长——单单是特斯拉汽车公司的锂离子电池工厂,就能吃掉现有锂供给的17%(这是高盛公司的预测,美国银行的预测则比高盛低了60%)。锂产业的美好前景吸引众多创业公司纷纷实验新流程和资源,希望能在这个目前仍由少数公司主宰的行业中占据一席之地。

    不过锂工程咨询公司TRU的CEO埃里克•安德森早在2009年初,也就是众多锂项目纷纷上马时,就曾表示过他对众多锂投资并不看好。

    安德森表示:“我当时说,由于围绕着这个行业的大肆宣传,很多工厂建好了之后还得关门。但很多人都对这种观点嗤之以鼻。”

    事实证明,安德森的预言基本上是正确的。市场需求的增幅并没有达到某些人的预测,目前只在每年5%到10%之间,而这些新公司和工厂也一直饱受很多问题的困扰。

    2012年,银河资源公司在西澳大利亚卡特林山的锂矿停产;2013年,RB Energy公司在加拿大魁北克省开采了一座新的碳酸锂矿,第二年便宣告停产;内华达州Western Lithium公司一度被视为特斯拉可能选择的一个潜在供应商,可惜股东最终也是空欢喜一场,该公司目前也处于停产中。

    安德森认为,Western Lithium公司和铝行业的许多新进者一样,最大的问题就是选错了材料。虽然锂在自然环境中并不罕见,但它的开采成本却根据不同的纯度和形式而有很大变化。凭借现有的技术和价格,要想获得真正有利润的锂,只能来自对高浓度卤水的蒸发提炼。

    这种卤水矿床几乎全部分布在南美洲西南部,而且主要掌握在一些知名企业手里。目前锂行业的“三巨头”分别是智利的Sociedad Quimicay Minera公司、美国的FMC Lithium公司(它控制着阿根廷的Hombre Muerte锂矿)和Albermarle公司(该公司最近刚刚收购了其竞争对手Rockwook公司)。Albermarle公司目前正在阿肯色州马格诺利亚一带开采锂卤水矿,该矿也被安德认为是短期内唯一一处可能产生经济效益的美国本土矿床。这三家的锂产量占据了全球总供给的90%以上,这三家公司只是稍稍扩大产量,就已经吸收了锂市场需求的大部分增量。

    缺乏技术人才则是这个行业的另一个普遍问题。波利维亚在开采号称“天空之镜”的乌尤尼盐湖(这个盐湖具有大量的高浓度锂矿床)时,就遇到了严重的管理和技术障碍。与此类似,中国的青海锂业有限公司和中信国安盟固利新能源有限公司在开采西藏附近的锂资源时,也遇到了巨大的障碍。中国原计划年产6万吨锂的目标,也不得不拦腰减半。(财富中文网)

    译者:朴成奎

    审校:任文科

    About five percent of the lithium carbonate produced in the world today goes to the pharmaceutical market, where it’s valued for its calming properties. But with surging demand on the horizon, lithium seems to be having nearly the opposite effect on investors and miners.

    Global lithium consumption doubled in the decade before 2012, driven largely by its use in lithium-ion batteries for cell phones and power tools. The boom will continue thanks to electric cars—Tesla’s huge gigafactory lithium-ion battery facility could by itself soak up as much as 17% of existing lithium supply (That’s a Goldman Sachs estimate—Bank of America’s was about 60% lower). That prospect has led a variety of startups to experiment with new processes and sources, hoping to elbow into a business dominated by just a few producers.

    But Eric Anderson, CEO of the lithium engineering consultancy TRU, was bearish on lithium investment as early as 2009, when a flood of new projects were being planned.

    “I made this statement that people snickered at—that plants would be built and closed . . . because of the hype surrounding the industry,” says Anderson.

    Anderson’s lithium predictions have been largely vindicated. Demand has risen more slowly than some expected—still currently between 5 and 10% per year—and new operations have been plagued by problems.

    In 2012, Galaxy Resources suspended production at its Mt. Cattlin mine in western Australia. In 2013, RB Energy Inc. opened a new lithium carbonate plant in Quebec, only to suspend operations in 2014. Nevada-based Western Lithium, which has been repeatedly floated as a potentially convenient supplier for Tesla, has taken shareholders on a very bumpy ride, and is not yet online.

    According to Anderson, Western Lithium, like many new lithium operations, simply aren’t working with the right raw materials. Though lithium isn’t rare in the environment, the cost of extraction varies greatly with its concentration and form. With existing technology and present prices, truly profitable lithium comes only from the evaporation of highly concentrated brine.

    Those sorts of brine deposits are nearly all in southwest South America, and controlled by established players. The three largest lithium producers are the Chile-based Sociedad Quimica y Minera, American FMC Lithium, which controls the ominously-named Hombre Muerte mine in Argentina, and Albermarle, which recently acquired competitor Rockwood. Albermarle is developing lithium brine holdings around Magnolia, Arkansas—the only American deposits that Anderson allows might make economic sense in the near future. Together, these three companies provide more than 90% of the world’s lithium, and have absorbed much of the rising demand simply by bringing untapped capacity online.

    A dearth of technical talent seems to be another widespread problem. The Bolivian state has faced serious management and technical hurdles in extracting the massive, high-density lithium deposits in the otherworldly salt flat Salar de Uyuni. Similarly, Chinese producers Quinghai Lithium and Citic Guoan MGL, hoping to exploit sources near Tibet, have experienced major hurdles, and plans to expand Chinese capacity to 60,000 tons a year by this year have been revised downward by half.

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