The race to produce more lithium in the United States is on.
Rare earth metals such as lithium are a crucial component in electrical engineering vehicle batteries.
As production of electric cars skyrockets around the world, demand for the mineral is increasing — and US miners are looking to capitalize on it.
“(Lithium) is now coming to US. It’s literally coming,” said Eric Norris, president of lithium at Albemarle Corporation, a US chemical manufacturer.
“Today, production is heavily dependent on Asia. More of this is coming to the US. This is important.”
The US currently has only one operating lithium mine. That could soon change as there are several new projects in development across the country.
In October, the Biden administration awarded €2.7 billion in grants to build and expand domestic production of electric vehicle batteries in 12 states — meaning demand could rise significantly.
However, some environmentalists warn of the adverse consequences of lithium mining.
So what is lithium mining – what does it mean for the planet?
Why is lithium so in demand?
Countries are increasingly phasing out fossil fuel cars electric vehicles.
From 2035, the EU will require all new cars and vans to be zero-emissions, while the US is looking to phase out all dependent on fossil fuels Heavy goods vehicles by 2040.
to produce electric cars batteriesSuppliers require large quantities of rare earth metals.
Lithium is the most common, but graphite and cobalt are also used.
It’s so useful because it’s extremely light, explains lithium industry analyst Chris Berry, noting that the metal is also preferred because it “holds a charge” and has a “30-year track record of use.” in a variety of different applications”.
Global demand for lithium was about 317,517 tons in 2020, but the industry estimates that project demand will be up to six times higher by 2030.
To reach its mid-century goal of carbon neutrality, the EU will need 18 times more lithium than it currently uses by 2030, and almost 60 times more by 2050.
“Lithium demand is growing globally at about 20 percent per year,” Berry said.
Where are all the lithium mines?
Lithium reserves are widely distributed across the globe. But lithium mines are not.
Europe and the US each have only one active lithium mine.
The US produces less than 2 percent of the world’s lithium supply, despite having about 4 percent of proven reserves.
Much of the world’s lithium comes from South America and Australia, with China dominating the global supply chain Lithium Ion Batteries.
“The Chinese probably own 60 to 70 percent of the lithium supply chain in particular,” Berry says.
US developers are examining several possible new mine sites.
A project is proposed by Lithium Americas at Thacker Pass in northern Nevada.
Given the green light, this mine would make millions of tons of lithium available.
Australia-based Ioneer also plans to build a large lithium mine in Nevada, which the company says will produce about 20,000 tons of lithium per year, enough to power hundreds of thousands electric vehicles yearly.
Is lithium mining bad for the planet?
petrol cars produce many greenhouse gases.
Transportation is responsible for around 30 percent of global carbon emissions, and 72 percent of those emissions come from fossil fuel vehicles.
But electric vehicles are not a silver bullet.
Switching to them would eliminate a large chunk of those emissions, although there are still significant issues with power generation and the environmental impact of manufacturing new cars.
Lithium mining itself has negative environmental impacts, as do many types of resource extraction.
mining can mine soil, cause water scarcity, and damage local ecosystems.
In the production of lithium, for example in evaporation ponds, about 2.2 million liters are needed to produce one ton of lithium. That’s the equivalent of about 48,000 five-minute showers.
The Sierra Club — a grassroots US environmental organization — has opposed lithium mining in the past.
In a 2021 review, the board recognized the need for electrification – but called for a “prudent” approach to mine licensing.
“In general, large-scale mining is environmentally destructive and often disrupts surrounding communities,” the document said.
“As such, the process of developing mining operations, including lithium, must be approached carefully and with community concerns in mind.”