Rio Tinto’s joint venture with London-listed Aterian Plc will allow it to tap into a lithium deposit in Rwanda, reinforcing its position as the only major diversified miner taking an active interest in extraction of the metal.
The firm’s bet on lithium was likely influenced by it not having a presence in other battery metals, and the market potential for borates — primarily used in fertilizers — from its stalled lithium project in Serbia.
Two months after the Serbian government revoked Rio Tinto’s licenses for the Jadar project in January 2022, it acquired the Rincon project in Argentina for $825 million. Previous owners of that site planned for an annual capacity of 10,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate, but Rio Tinto will start with a pilot plant with 3,000 tons of annual output.
Other major miners such as BHP, Vale, and Anglo American are focusing on their existing battery metals assets of copper, nickel, manganese and cobalt instead of venturing into lithium. Glencore has explicitly indicated its interest in trading the commodity rather than mining and processing it.
Rio’s Aug. 1 deal with Aterian includes the development of projects to supply lithium and other byproducts. The absence of major miners presents an opportunity for others. Exxon Mobil and Chevron are making a play for lithium mining as road transport electrification displaces oil demand. BloombergNEF expects markets for mined lithium to remain constrained until 2024. Easing supply constraints, especially on lithium ore spodumene, will help move the market into surplus from 2025.
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