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Australian lithium miners in focus on rising global demand for electric vehicles

Iron ore and gold have been the traditional staples underpinning Australia's commodities industry but lesser-known lithium could soon take over the mantle.

Atlas Iron, an iron ore explorer, is one miner gradually gravitating towards the commodity dubbed the "white petroleum" for its silver-white appearance.

Speaking to CNBC on the sidelines of the Resources' Rising Stars Conference on Wednesday, Atlas Iron's managing director David Flanagan hinted that a tie-up with a lithium producer may be in the cards.

"We're not going to become a lithium player but if there's an opportunity to get value from that for shareholders, we'll do the right sort of deal."

Fresh from a major restructuring operation that involved halving its debt, Atlas announced in its May investor presentation that it held "prospective tenure in zones of known world-class lithium-tantalum deposits" in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

"It turns out we've got a lot of tenements near companies with high-value lithium projects. It also turns out that some of that lithium also appears on our grounds," said Flanagan. "Lithium is going to be an important commodity for the world's future."

Australia is already the world's biggest producer of lithium, followed by Chile and Argentina.

Lithium-ion battery cells
Tomohiro Ohsumi | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Lithium-ion battery cells

The metal is an essential ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries widely used in consumer electronics. The batteries are also crucial to electric vehicles and demand is set to spike as brands such as Tesla ramp up production. Earlier this month, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that he intends to churn out 500,000 electric cars by 2018, from 50,580 cars sold in 2015.

Back in December, Goldman Sachs called lithium "the new gasoline," predicting that just a 1 percent increase in battery electric vehicle (BEV) penetration would increase lithium demand by 70,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) per year, or roughly half of current global demand for lithium.

So far in 2016, the price of lithium carbonate is already nearly double last year's average price, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a research firm specializing in the global battery supply chain.

The rally has sent the stock prices of certain Australian lithium miners into a tizzy. In the past twelve months, Prospect Resources has soared 400 percent while General Mining Corporation and Pilbara Minerals have both witnessed spikes of a thousand percent.

"I don't think we fully understand the actual future demand for lithium," John Holmes, exploration manager at Pilbara Minerals, told CNBC.

"With the surprising quick uptake of Tesla's new vehicles and electric vehicles in general, we're going to see a massive surge in demand for lithium-ion batteries in the foreseeable future."

The company is targeting 300,000 tons of lithium concentrate when production gets underway at its new project in Pilgangoora, located south of Port Hedland, in 2017.

"Our cost of production is $200 a ton, based on our price estimate of $456/ton. But current pricing is $600/ton. So, there's a massive margin even using the conservative price," explained Holmes.

Aside from electric vehicles, wall-mounted home batteries will also lead demand for the commodity, he noted. Last year, Tesla released a line of energy-storing batteries for households to use when energy is scarce or expensive.

But the outlook isn't entirely rosy. As producers look to get into the market as quick as possible, lithium could endure the same fate as other in-demand commodities, i.e. oversupply, said Holmes.

"At the moment you're seeing a constriction in supply and an exhilaration in demand so there is a pressure point at the moment," James Brown, managing director at Australian producer Altura Mining, told CNBC earlier this month.

But because the metal is difficult to mine, the current supply situation should hold up and support prices for a while, he added.

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