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Strengthening the Supply Chains for the “Fuel of the Green Revolution” – A Look at Lithium

Sometimes hailed the “fuel of the green revolution,” lithium has been the posterchild of the “battery criticals.”  Start with the fact that the leading battery technology underpinning the shift towards net zero carbon emissions is called “lithium-ion.” With its high electrochemical potential and light weight, the commercialization of the lithium-ion battery has transformed and accelerated the renewables shift.  Lithium is a key component of the battery cathode, and the EV market and demand for renewable energy storage are key drivers for soaring lithium demand.

Meanwhile, as global lithium production has quadrupled since 2010, the U.S. share of production has dropped significantly. Once the largest producer of lithium in the 1990s, the United States’ share of production has dropped to 1 percent of the global total, as Australia, Chile and China dominate the field.

As we previously pointed out, China may only account for 13% of total production, but It has not only consistently developed domestic mining capabilities — it has also acquired lithium assets in countries like Chile, Canada and Australia, and, one link down the lithium supply chain, it is now home to 60% of global refining capacity. In light of skyrocketing demand projections, the country has stepped up its involvement in the electric game, and has recently beat out automaker Tesla in a bid to mine for lithium in Nigeria.

As for the United States, according to the latest USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries“[c]ommercial-scale lithium production […] was from one continental brine operation in Nevada. Lithium was also commercially produced from the brine-sourced waste tailings of a Utah-based magnesium producer. Two companies produced a wide range of downstream lithium compounds in the United States from domestic or imported lithium carbonate, lithium chloride, and lithium hydroxide.”

Big picture, the U.S. simply cannot realize its aspirations to be a global player in the renewable revolution while producing 1% of worldwide lithium supply.

Efforts to strengthen the lithium supply chain are underway. Followers of ARPN are aware of the green energy-related provisions of 2021 congressional infrastructure package, as well as the 2022 invocation of the Defense Production Act for lithium and the battery criticals and the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

[Lithium is the latest in ARPN’s feature series reviewing the battery criticals against the backdrop of the latest USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries. View our posts on graphitemanganesecobalt, and nickel.]   

In January of this year, the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office (LPO) announced a conditional commitment to Ioneer to advance the domestic production of lithium and boron at its Rhyolite Ridge project.

Rhyolite Ridge would become the second lithium mine in the United States, but – while DOE is providing a 9-digit loan guarantee – the project is still pending approval from DOI, the Department of the Interior, where it is mired in the inherent irony of the green energy transition, with environmentalists opposing the project on grounds that Thiem’s buckwheat, a rare wildflower found on the proposed mine site, was added to the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only a few weeks ago.   We have seen this paradox elsewhere. As Reuters columnist Andy Home phrased it“public opinion is firmly in favour of decarbonisation but not the mines and smelters needed to get there.”

Also in January, General Motors announced that it would jointly invest with Lithium Americas Corp. to develop the Thacker Pass mine in Nevada, which is the largest known source of lithium in the United States, and is considered the third largest in the world.  With a $650 million equity investment, this would represent the “largest investment by an automakers to produce battery raw materials” in GM’s own words. Under the agreement, GM will have exclusive access to the lithium once the investment is complete. The company expects that once the mine is operational in the second half of 2026, the batteries bearing Rhyolite Ridge lithium could power up to 1 million EVs.

Not surprisingly, the Thacker Mine, too, is embroiled in a high stakes legal battle, with environmentalists and tribal leaders attempting to block the project near the Oregon line.  Just last week, however, a federal judge – for the third time in two years – sided with the Biden Administration and Lithium Americas, denying the opposition’s request for an emergency injunction until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals can hear their latest appeal.  Based on the judge’s decision, construction could begin as early as this week.

In addition to projects pursuing lithium as a primary material, Rio Tinto’s U.S. Borax Mine in California has recovered lithium from 90-year old waste piles.  The effort has leveraged a public-private partnership linking Rio Tinto with DOE’s Critical Materials Institute, to work through processing challenges.  It’s the kind of unconventional thinking that finds a 21st Century tech material in the mine tailings of the 1920s, turning a “waste stream” into a “work stream” in a world hungry for lithium.

Achieving global (and domestic) decarbonization goals while at the same time strengthening our supply chains and reducing our over-reliance on critical minerals from China will require a comprehensive “all of the above” approach across the entire value chain, and,  ARPN’s Daniel McGroarty has consistently  pointed out“we don’t have the luxury of time” anymore.