Introduction: A Global Need
Listed as a critical mineral by the United States Geological Society (USGS), lithium is critical to the future of worldwide sustainable development initiatives. While demand for lithium continues to rise, production is lagging, hampered by inefficient extraction methods, unsustainable mining practices, and an overall lack of mines. Global Lithium president Joe Lowry has been on the record predicting a deficit in supply in the next five years, and as Zachary Skidmore illustrates for Mining Technology, demand has led to investment in upstream lithium-related technologies, and not in the extraction sector. “The global lithium mining market is expected to grow from $3.33bn in 2020 to $6.37bn by 2030. However, despite the surge in prices and EV demand, lithium is receiving less funding than required, risking a structural deficit in the future.”
Securing Lithium Reserves
The importance of lithium and other battery materials is exemplified by China’s large footprint in countries with important mineral reserves, or as former assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs Otto Reich, puts it, “The Chinese are ‘eating our lunch.” As a whole, the United States has not done much to compete with China, Russia, or Korea when it comes to lithium supply chains – but we have all the tools available to have an impact on global markets while also securing enough lithium for our own needs.
The Biden Administration has invested $3 billion in lithium-ion battery production, and is looking into increasing lithium production domestically. Currently, there is only one active lithium mine in the United States, Albemarle’s Silver Peak site in Nevada which produces 6,000 tons of lithium carbonate a year, roughly 1% of global production. With certain estimates pointing to the U.S. requiring 75,000 tons of lithium carbonate a year in order to meet demand for lithium-ion batteries, Silver Peak is barely making a dent on the domestic market. However, the brine site is part of the solution to America’s lithium self-sufficiency, and is key to Biden’s lithium plans.
How do we increase lithium production?
The USGS estimates that there are 750,000 tons of lithium within the U.S., and brines like those at Silver Peak, or California’s Salton Sea are a preferred lithium extraction source over the environmentally-problematic ore mining sites in Nevada and North Carolina. Brines can be a difficult medium from which to extract lithium, and for a long time there has not been any technology capable of making it financially viable. Carly Anderson, a Chemical Engineer and Partner at Prime Movers Lab points to the environmental impact of lithium mining as a key reason the industry has not developed in the U.S. – something Skidmore also alludes to, yet there is an answer to both this, and the brine extraction difficulties: Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technology like LiTAS™.
Skidmore elaborates, “DLE […] is expected to boost existing capacities via increased recoveries and lower operating costs, while also improving the sustainability aspects.” One of the world’s leading Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technologies on the market, LiTAS™’s lithium recovery rate from brines is 94%, and it does so in a matter of days without using heavy chemicals or water. For comparison’s sake, current brine extraction can recover as little as 30% of lithium over the course of months, using vast quantities of water and chemicals. Developed and owned by an American company with labs in Austin, Texas, LiTAS™ is the homegrown solution that can lead to U.S. energy independence and create green jobs.
Conclusion: Developing the U.S. lithium sector
Lithium will power the vehicles and power-grids of the U.S., it is of vital importance that this element not be controlled by a third party. The U.S. must develop its lithium sector in order to secure its long-term sustainability. EnergyX and LiTAS™ provide an opportunity for major brine sites like Silver Peak and the Salton Sea can be operated with no risk of environmental repercussions while providing for U.S. demand for lithium.