How the U.S. fell behind on lithium, the ‘white gold’ of electric vehicles

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

To power all of these electric vehicles, we’re going to need batteries – lots of them.

The growth of electric vehicles will be responsible for more than 90% of lithium demand by 2030, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. But lithium is also present in our telephones, computers, ceramics, lubricants, pharmaceutical products and is essential for the storage of solar and wind energy.

“It’s like the blood in your body,” said Lithium Americas CEO Jon Evans, “It’s the chemistry behind how lithium-ion batteries work. It remains the common denominator of all battery technologies, even the ones we’re looking at now for the next generation batteries, so that’s really critical.

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

The price of lithium is skyrocketing, up 280% since January 2021, and establishing a national lithium supply has become the modern version of oil security. But today, the United States lags far behind, with only 1% of the world’s lithium mined and processed in the United States, according to the US Geological Survey.

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

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

“The lithium industry started in the United States and has worked well for 50 years,” said Erick Neuman, international business manager at Swenson Technology. “We have a lot. The challenge is whether we can produce what we need at an economical and competitive price? It’s difficult.

Lithium is not a rare element. The United States holds nearly 8 million metric tons in reserve, which ranks it among the top five countries in the world, according to the USGS.

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

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

Several national lithium projects are underway in Nevada, North Carolina, California and Arkansas, among others.

A Lithium Americas worker processes lithium at the company’s R&D lab in Reno, Nevada.

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

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Last summer, GM announced a multi-million dollar investment in Controlled Thermal Resources and secured the first rights to purchase locally 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 from its deposits there, but the project has faced delays due to permits.

Lithium Americas is planning an open pit mine at Thacker Pass, which is located in an extinct supervolcano about 200 miles north of Reno, Nevada, and is one of the largest lithium reserves in the United States. The site will handle both lithium mining and refining and is in the final licensing phase.

But no one wants a mine in their backyard, and Thacker Pass and other projects have been stalled by lawsuits and opposition from environmentalists, permitting delays and opposition from area Native American tribes.

Watch the video to learn more and to get a glimpse of some of the national lithium projects underway.

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