The race is on to produce more lithium in the United States. The United States will need a lot more lithium to meet its clean energy goals – and the industry that mines, extracts and processes the chemical element is poised to grow. But it also faces a host of challenges from environmentalists, Indigenous groups and government regulators.
Although lithium reserves are widely distributed around the world, the United States is home to only one active lithium mine, in Nevada. The element is essential to the development of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries which are considered essential for reducing climate-altering carbon emissions created by cars and other forms of transport.
Global lithium demand was around 350,000 tonnes (317,517 metric tons) in 2020, but industry estimates project demand will be up to six times higher by 2030. Potential new mining projects and lithium mining are in various stages of development in states such as Maine, North Carolina, California and Nevada.
“No one really anticipated this huge spike in demand,” said Tim Crowley, vice president of government affairs for Lithium Nevada, a subsidiary of a company developing a mine in Thacker Pass, Nevada. “We have owned the lithium space for a long time and we have ceded it to China.”
Much of the world’s lithium comes from South America and Australia, and China dominates the global lithium-ion battery supply chain. The United States produces less than 2% of the world’s lithium supply, despite having about 4% of the reserves. The largest reserves in the world are in Chile.
Expanding domestic lithium production would involve surface mining or brine mining, which involves pumping mineral-rich brine to the surface and processing it. Opponents, including the Sierra Club, have raised concerns that the projects could harm sacred Indigenous lands and jeopardize fragile ecosystems and wildlife.
But the projects could also benefit the environment in the long term by taking fossil-fuel cars off the road, said Glenn Miller, professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Nevada.
“A national source has enormous value. Then we can do things that only China does with production,” Miller said.
Lithium, the lightest metal on Earth, was discovered by Swedish chemist Johan August Arfwedson over 200 years ago. Since then, lithium and its compounds have been used in everything from psychiatric medicine to lubricating grease.
But interest in lithium has exploded in recent years due to its use in rechargeable batteries for electric and hybrid cars, lawn mowers, power tools and more. Lithium batteries also power laptops and cell phones.
The Biden administration has made a plan for half a million electric vehicle charging stations a centerpiece of its infrastructure goals. This effort, and the growth of electric vehicle companies such as Tesla, will require significantly more lithium to make batteries.
The closest new lithium mining project to development is that proposed for Thacker Pass by Lithium Americas. This northern Nevada mine would make millions of tons of lithium available, but Native American tribes have argued that it is located on sacred land and should be shut down.
Construction could begin late this year, Lithium Americas CEO Jonathan Evans said, noting it would be the first lithium project on federal lands authorized in six decades.
Evans said there will likely be more U.S. attempts to mine lithium due to growing demand. “It was a small industry and it grew quickly,” he said. “I expect big companies to enter the space through acquisitions or other means.”
Australian company Ioneer also wants to build a large lithium mine in Nevada, which the company says is expected to produce 22,000 tonnes (19,958 metric tons) of lithium, enough to power hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles a year.
Lithium mining projects represent a challenge for environmentalists because they carry the promise of decarbonization in exchange for heavy impacts on ecosystems and local communities. Lithium mining could compromise water quality and livestock production in some states, the Sierra Club argued.
The big challenge is to make sure lithium mines are located in places where they cause the least damage, said Lisa Belenky, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity.
“It’s really very site-specific in terms of the impacts it would have on local species, water,” Belenky said. “Almost every energy project we look at for climate change has its own greenhouse gas footprint.”
The search for more domestic lithium has opened up the potential for mining and extraction in states beyond Nevada. An Australian company called Piedmont Lithium wants to develop an open-pit mining project it has proposed for the Kings Mountain area west of Charlotte, North Carolina. The region was a major supplier of lithium from the mid-20th century to the 1980s, the company said.
California’s largest lake, the salty, shrinking Salton Sea, is also primed for lithium operations. Lithium can be extracted from geothermal brine, and the Salton Sea has been the site of geothermal power plants that have been pumping brine for decades. Proponents of mining lithium from the lake said it would require less land and water than other brining operations.
A project, led by EnergySource Minerals, is expected to be operational next year, a company spokesperson said. General Motors Corp. is also an investor in another project on the Salton Sea that could start producing lithium by 2024.
Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, envisions California lithium can position the state to become a leader in battery production. He called the state “the Saudi Arabia of lithium” during a speech in January.
Dee Dee Myers, a senior business adviser to Newsom, said lithium is an “increasingly critical resource” as California and the world pursue clean energy development to slow the impacts of climate change. .
The state has the potential to produce “epic amounts of lithium” given the resources around the Salton Sea, Myers said. But she said she wanted to make sure the lithium is mined and produced in a sustainable way.
The state government could play a role in regulating the mining process. In 2020, California also created the Lithium Valley Commission to review and analyze lithium mining incentives. They must file a report with their findings by October.
In Maine, Plumbago Mountain in the western part of the state has sparked mining interest. The mountain is “a potentially significant new lithium resource,” with a higher average lithium content than similar deposits around the world, according to a 2020 paper in the scientific journal Mineralium Deposita.
However, Maine’s mining regulations could make it difficult to mine lithium. Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection is investigating the possibility of mining lithium at Plumbago at the request of property owners, state mining coordinator Mike Clark said.
Plumbago Mountain is the kind of site that could be important to the United States as it seeks to meet its clean energy goals, said Alicia Cruz-Uribe, associate professor of petrology and mineralogy at the University of Maine. .
The country’s lithium reserves rank among the largest in the world, Cruz-Uribe said. “But the amount we produce is peanuts.”