Until about the mid-1990s, the production of lithium was dominated by two U.S.
companies, one that mined lithium minerals in North Carolina and one that produced
lithium from a brine operation in Nevada. Several other companies produced lithium
minerals in Canada, Zimbabwe and Australia, and lithium chemicals were manufactured
in the Soviet Union and the Peoples’ Republic of China. For many years, the
Nevada brine deposit was considered unique in the world.
That was then. In 1969, a study by Chilean Geologists revealed the presence of
high lithium and potassium concentrations in the Salar de Atacama, located some 400
km east of the port city of Antofagasta. The data was confirmed in 1974 and in 1986,
and the Salar became the second location in the world to produce lithium carbonate
from brines. In the mid 1990s SQM—the Sociedad Quimica y Minera—started the
production of potash, potassium sulfate, and, from the bitterns, lithium carbonate in
the northern part of the Salar. The latter allowed SQM to offer lithium carbonate at
nearly half the market price, thereby effectively penetrating the lithium carbonate
market. From a non-producer in 1985, Chile has become the major supplier of
lithium carbonate in the world. Following the initial production success in Chile,
exploration for lithium-bearing brines intensified and resulted in the discovery of
lithium in the salars of Argentina (Hombre Muerto and others), Bolivia (Uyuni), Tibet
(Zabuye), and the Peoples’ Republic of China (Quinghai basin).