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Visualizing the Lithium Challenge – Time to Strengthen the Domestic Supply Chain

As part of the Biden Administration’s efforts to bolster U.S. critical mineral supply chains, and specifically the battery supply chain, the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office (LPO) has announced a conditional commitment to Ioneer Rhyolite Ridge to advance the domestic production of lithium and boron.

Under the conditional commitment, the LPO would lend up to $700 million to the company to develop lithium carbonate for EV batteries from the Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project in Esmeralda County, NV.  According to DOE, if implemented, the project could produce enough lithium production to power 370,000 EVs each year, and offtake agreements with Ford, Prime Planet Energy & Solutions and EcoPro Innovation have been executed.

The announcement could not be more timely. With lithium a key component of the lithium-ion battery cathode, demand for the material is surging rapidly, and is projected to exceed current global production by 2030.

Meanwhile, as global lithium production has quadrupled since 2010, the U.S. share of production has dropped significantly.

new graphic by Visual Capitalist paints the picture, and it’s not pretty:

Screenshot 2023-01-24 at 9.08.36 AM

As Visual Capitalist outlines, the U.S. was the largest producer of lithium in the 1990s, accounting for over one-third of global production in 1995.  Today, three countries, Australia, Chile and China dominate the field, with Australia producing more than 50% of the world’s lithium.

As for the U.S., it now accounts for 1% of the world total.

China may only account for 13% of total production, but has not only consistently developed domestic mining capabilities, but has also acquired lithium assets in countries like Chile, Canada and Australia, and – one link down the lithium supply chain — has ensured it is home to 60% of global refining capacity.

The Rhyolite Ridge project would be 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.”

But as followers of ARPN well know, we clearly can’t have our cake and eat it, too.

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 pointed out on several occasions, “we don’t have the luxury of time” anymore.