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Lithium: Battery Arms Race Powers R&D Efforts in Quest for Domestic Mineral Resources

As the “tech wars” gear up and the “battery arms race” shifts in to higher gears, efforts to promote the securing of domestic critical mineral supply chains are not only underway in policy circles in Washington, DC, but in the private sector as well.  Companies including the world’s top diversified miners are intensifying their R&D efforts to meet the world’s increasing demand for tech metals. 

The latest case in point:  Rio Tinto’s successful production of lithium carbonate – a key component of electric vehicle battery technology – as part of the reprocessing of waste piles from its long-standing boron mine in southern California.

Part of a unit that produced borates [link to old Boron post], the Boron site is home to at least 80 minerals. The lithium find was part of waste reprocessing in an initial search for gold and other elements at the site.  Efforts now shift to improving quality and lifting volumes, according to Bloomberg.

As Simon Moores, managing director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence and member of the ARPN panel of issue experts told the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources earlier this year, “The growth trajectory expected for lithium ion battery raw material demand is unprecedented. Lithium ion batteries are becoming a major global industry and the impact on the four key raw materials of lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite will be profound.” Outlining theoretical demand scenario from megafactories in the pipeline at 2023 and 2028, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence estimates that lithium demand will increase by over eight times.

The Boron discovery, while in Moores’ view not necessarily a “volume play,” but rather an “IP [intellectual property] play” is significant because in recent years, there has been only one lithium production facility in the U.S. — prompting analysts like Moores to lament that the United States is a “bystander” in the battery arms race.  

Confirming Moores’ analysis, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) called our nation’s over-reliance on foreign critical minerals our nation’s “Achilles’ heel that serves to empower and enrich other nations, while costing us jobs and international competitiveness.”