Introduction: Developing the United States’ lithium industry
A core element within electric vehicle batteries and grid-scale renewable energy storage, lithium is designated as a critical mineral by the United States Geological Service (USGS). As the U.S. and other global governments move towards their net zero plans, lithium is needed in large quantities as we shift away from fossil fuels within the energy and transport sector. This means lithium is critical to maintaining energy security and creating stability for domestic EV markets within the United States, hence the USGS’ designation. Lithium prices have continued to rise, and as investments into the sector begin to follow, there is growing interest in developing the U.S.’ brine to battery industry.
How much lithium is in the United States?
There is roughly 750,000 tons of lithium within the U.S. Deposits are primarily found in the country’s west where only one active mine, Silver Peak in Nevada, is responsible for the U.S.’ entire yearly production of 5,000 tonnes. By comparison, the world’s largest lithium producers, Australia, Chile and China, extract roughly 55,000t, 26,000t and 14,000t respectively yearly. Per the USGS, the United States imports over 90% of its lithium from Chile and Argentina.
While U.S. lithium deposits are not large, they are also not insignificant, and could provide the country with a secure supply of lithium at a key moment in the transition to low carbon technologies. The importance of lithium is such that producers will dictate the ability of global governments to meet their climate goals, and with such high stakes, opportunities to exploit domestic sources must be explored. This is further emphasized by the quiet monopoly that China is building within the battery materials sector as it moves to become the go-to source for these critical elements.
Importance of the global lithium market
China is largely in control of global battery mineral markets. The country has invested large amounts into lithium processing, lithium-ion battery manufacturing and EV supply chains, as Wired’s Amit Katwala outlines, “When it comes to processing lithium, China is in a league of its own. The superpower gobbled up about 40 percent of the 93,000 metric tons of raw lithium mined globally in 2021. Hundreds of so-called gigafactories across the country are churning out millions of EV batteries for both the domestic market and foreign carmakers like BMW, Volkswagen, and Tesla.”
China’s dominance should be a warning sign, as countries like the United States shift to renewable energy heavily reliant on battery minerals like lithium – this is a threat to domestic and international energy security. It also limits the ability of national governments to secure their own independent supply chains. These fears are already playing out on the ground in lithium-rich countries, and nations with no previous lithium extraction infrastructure are announcing plans to open new mines. The United States should be exploring all available opportunities to develop its domestic production of lithium and modernize the infrastructure it currently has.
Developing domestic lithium production
The Biden administration has shown some appetite to develop local lithium extraction opportunities. After announcing funding for EV-related infrastructure, and $3 billion in lithium-ion battery production, the administration is weighing its options on ramping up mining across the U.S. “China just put out its next five-year plan. They want to be the go-to place for the guts of the batteries, yet we have these minerals in the United States. We have not taken advantage of them, to mine them,” Mr. Biden’s energy secretary Jennifer Granholm explains, “This is a race to the future that America is going to win.”This race however, cannot come at the expense of the environment.
Activists are adamant about the need for accountability within the mining sector, and the dilemma posed by the extraction of lithium versus the opportunities it unlocks certainly creates an interesting conundrum – yet the solutions is already available. Direct lithium extraction (DLE) sits is being touted as the next step in lithium brine extraction, a technology capable of making the process more sustainable and efficient. As it stands EnergyX’s patented LiTAS™ technology is one of the best on the market. LiTAS™ can extract lithium from brine resources using little to no water, and does not require heavy metals or chemical additives. It also yields over 90% of lithium within a brine in a matter of days, rather than current industry standard of 30% over several months.
Conclusion: DLE is the solution to U.S. lithium problems
Lithium is critical to U.S. infrastructure, it is needed to power the electric vehicles and energy sources the country relies upon. As such, the U.S. must develop its own lithium sector from brine to battery to create a secure supply chain capable of meeting our needs. DLE technology like EnergyX’s LiTAS™ provides a new opportunity to create green jobs and accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future.