How the US has fallen so far in lithium, the ‘white gold’ of electric vehicles

The United States has a lithium supply problem. Almost every major automaker has announced its transition to electric cars, Tesla has delivered nearly a million vehicles in 2021, and a handful of new electric car companies like Rivian and Lucid are rolling out new models off the line.

In order to power all of these electric vehicles, we’ll need batteries — lots of them.

Electric vehicle growth will be responsible for more than 90% of lithium demand by 2030, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. But lithium is also in our phones, computers, ceramics, lubricants, and pharmaceuticals, and is essential for storing solar and wind energy.

“It’s like blood in your body, it’s the chemistry behind how lithium-ion batteries work. It remains the common denominator in all battery technologies, even the ones we look to now in the future,” said John Evans, CEO of Lithium Americas. So it’s really a critical component. “

This vital mineral in rechargeable batteries has earned the name “white gold” and the rush is on.

The price of lithium is on the rise, up 280% since January 2021, and creating a domestic supply of lithium has become the modern version of oil security. But today the United States is far behind, with only 1% of global lithium mined and processed in the United States, according to the USGS.

More than 80% of the world’s raw lithium is mined in Australia, Chile and China. China controls more than half of the world’s lithium processing and refining operations and has three-quarters of the world’s giant lithium-ion battery factories, according to the International Energy Agency.

But until the 1990s, the United States was a leader in lithium production.

“The lithium industry started in the United States and has been doing really well for 50 years,” said Eric Neumann, International Business Manager at Swenson Technology. “We have a lot. The challenge is, can we produce what we need at an economical and competitive price? That’s tough.”

Lithium is not a rare element. The United States has nearly 8 million metric tons of reserves, making it among the top five countries in the world, according to the USGS.

But there is only one lithium mine operating in the United States, the Albemarle Silver Mine in Nevada.

Last June, the administration released a blueprint to start domestic lithium production and refining as well as battery manufacturing, and set a target for national electric vehicle sales of 50% by 2030.

There are several domestic lithium projects underway in Nevada, North Carolina, California, and Arkansas, among other places.

Americas Lithium Agent processes lithium at the company’s Reno, Nevada research and development laboratory.

Controlled Thermal Resources is developing a lithium project in the Salton Sea in California, which will extract lithium from brine pumped through geothermal power plants in the area. The Salton Sea was once a hot tourist destination, but it has become one of the worst environmental and public health crises in recent history as dry conditions have dried up much of the lake. The state of California is trying to change the area, calling it “Lithium Valley” and hoping to generate the revenue needed to revive the area.

Last summer, General Motors announced a multi-million dollar investment in controlled thermal resources, securing the first rights to purchase domestically produced lithium for its electric vehicles.

Piedmont Lithium wants to revive an old lithium-mining area in North Carolina, near Charlotte. Piedmont signed a deal in 2020 to supply Tesla with lithium obtained from its deposits there, but the project has faced delays due to allowing.

Lithium Americas plans an open-pit mine at Thacker Pass, which is located inside a massive extinct volcano about 200 miles north of Reno, Nevada, one of the largest reserves of lithium in the United States. The site will handle both mining and lithium refining and is in its final permitting phase.

But no one wants a mine in their backyard, and Thacker Bass and other projects have been hampered by lawsuits and opposition from environmentalists, allowing delays and opposition from Native American tribes in the area.

Watch the video to learn more, and to get an inside look at some of the local lithium projects in the works.


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