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China is winning 'desperate' global race to control lithium for electric vehicles

  • China is the leading market player for electric and hybrid cars, accounting for half of global sales
  • "Given the government's power in China to direct the economy, if they want to become the world leaders in electric vehicles, they can likely achieve it," says one expert
  • The global push to roll out electric cars has been amplified by concerns over air pollution

China is outpacing the U.S. and other countries in a global race to secure supplies of an all-important element for electric cars.

China has emerged as the leading market player for electric and hybrid cars, accounting for approximately half of global sales. And with the world's second-largest economy keen to develop the industry within its own borders, Beijing is looking to import a lot more lithium.

"Lithium is coming of age in a big way. It's the core ingredient to 99 percent of electric vehicles and as a result, demand is going through the roof," Simon Moores, managing director at research and data provider at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, told CNBC in a phone interview.

As demand for electric vehicles skyrockets, Chinese firms have rapidly been making deals in a bid to secure supplies of lithium — a vital component used in batteries for electric vehicles.

Demand for lithium had been "bubbling under the surface" for several years, Moores said, before a renewed interest in electric cars about 18 months ago triggered a "desperate" global pursuit.

China wants 'to control electric vehicle supply chain'

Governments and car manufacturers worldwide have taken steps to electrify fleets and further phase out the combustion engine. The lithium-ion batteries are able to produce more electricity per unit than conventional batteries.

The global push to roll out electric cars — which emit less climate-warming carbon emissions — has been amplified by concerns over air pollution, particularly from diesel cars. And Beijing's pursuit of lithium for electric cars appears aligned to the plans of Chinese President Xi Jinping, although industry analysts said cost, rather than environmental concern, was the primary reason for China to pivot toward alternative energy.

A BYD Concept car is displayed during the first day of the 17th Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition in Shanghai on April 19, 2017.
STR | AFP | Getty Images
A BYD Concept car is displayed during the first day of the 17th Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition in Shanghai on April 19, 2017.

"Given the government's power in China to direct the economy, if they want to become the world leaders in electric vehicles, they can likely achieve it," Jay Jacobs, director of research at Global X, told CNBC in an email.

"China is not just focusing on electric vehicle manufacturing, but also buying up lithium projects and supporting the growth of battery producers, so they can control even more of the electric vehicle supply chain," he said.

Electric vehicle revolution 'grossly misunderstood'

Western companies have yet to show the same levels of interest in lithium supplies compared to their Chinese counterparts, analysts said.

Like Beijing, the U.S. and Europe also have limited lithium resources of their own and rely on imports from elsewhere. Lithium is most commonly mined from rocks in Australia as well as brine pools in South America, in countries such as Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

Employees shovel salt into mountains at the Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flats) in Potosi, Bolivia, on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016.
Marcelo Perez del Carpio | Bloomberg via Getty Images
Employees shovel salt into mountains at the Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flats) in Potosi, Bolivia, on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016.

Some observers fear electric car makers, such as Tesla, could end up scrambling to secure crucial resources of lithium where China is the biggest player. However, Jacobs said even China recognized the global arms race for lithium supplies was unlikely to be a "winner-takes-all industry."

"The move toward electric vehicles is grossly misunderstood and over-simplified in the markets. This is a transition that will take many decades, if it happens," Jeffrey Christian, managing director at CPM Group, told CNBC via email.

"There are people who speak with great conviction about the future of electric vehicles and lithium batteries, but their convictions are based more on faith and beliefs than on concrete, knowable realities at this time."