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The 'white gold' rush for lithium

Developing greener strategies to avoid a battery metal deficit Critical Minerals Alliances 2023 - September 12, 2023

Lithium is an indispensable element in the clean energy transition for several key reasons; like all alkaline metals on the periodic table, it has one more electron than it strictly needs, and this tendency to shed electrons makes it well-suited for passing them back and forth between cathode and anode, charging and discharging thousands of times without degradation.

Pure lithium does not occur in nature, but traces are found throughout nearly all igneous rocks, mineral springs, certain clays, and the world's oceans. It is the lightest metal and sports a high electrochemical potential, making it the first contender in all energy storage solutions.

In a word-it's perfect for use in energy-dense and long-lived rechargeable batteries. And with fossil fuels on their way out, the world will need somewhere to store the next wave of renewable energy.

Powering the future

Lithium compounds cover a broad spectrum of uses; in pharmaceutical and biochemistry applications, in polymers, ceramics and glass, metallurgy and coatings and as a high-temperature lubricant. It is alloyed with aluminum for lightness and improved strength in armor plating, aircraft, bicycle frames and high-speed trains.

It can also be used as a means of storing hydrogen for use as a fuel and as a non-chlorofluorocarbon coolant alternative in large-scale commercial applications such as air conditioning for office buildings, hospitals, and industrial process cooling.

Lithium has since become necessary for strategic, industrial, and commercial applications.

Lithium-based batteries not only allow smartphones and laptops to become lighter and longer-lasting but are found inside everything from pacemakers to power tools.

It is, however, electric vehicles and renewable energy storage that are powering enormous new demand for this lightest of metals.

A rich resource

According to the U.S. Geological Survey lithium report for 2023, cumulative global sources of lithium have been estimated at 98 million metric tons, a number climbing each year as further deposits are avidly sought out and secured.

Identified lithium resources within the U.S. are 12 million tons, with continuing development and exploration activities of various naturally occurring brines, mineral deposits and clays (clay extraction is more expensive, though Tesla has a new method patented).

There is presently only one working U.S. domestic lithium mine in Nevada, with dozens more at various stages of exploration and development. Other promising locations include Southern California, North Carolina, South Dakota, Arizona, Arkansas, Utah, and the most recent discovery of a substantial hard-rock cache in Maine, still in the permitting process.

Brine-based lithium production is also being expanded upon in South America, which has the highest occurring concentration of the resource at 52 million tons. Hardrock mining production from Australia is leading the industry with 9.9 million tons and more on the rise, being the cheapest and most efficient to extract. Canada follows with a potential for 2.9 million tons of hard rock resources and further mineral and brine projects being explored as well.

In short, there is technically enough lithium to put the entire population of the planet into an EV.

Unfortunately, only about a third of that resource (32 million tons) qualifies as "reserves," which are resources that are considered economically viable to mine according to accessibility, extraction costs, and a new but important criterium – overall environmental, social and governance rating.

"There is not sufficient supply to meet this demand projection based on our knowledge of known projects today. That includes all projects whether they are under construction, in feasibility or still in exploration," said Glyn Lawcock, Global Head of Mining Research at UBS investment bank.

The defining issue, then, isn't whether there is enough but how fast the world's lithium-hungry industries can get it while emphasizing resource stewardship moving forward.

Racing the clock

The lithium mining sector is racing toward 2030, an important deadline for several countries bent on reducing carbon emissions by at least half through electrification of the transportation industry.

In the U.S., the federal stance on internal combustion cars is shared by several countries, including the UK, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, and Norway – all of which have announced a phaseout by 2035, with only Chinese and Japanese governments still allowing for hybrids.

This short timeline is pushing the critical minerals markets toward very tight supply margins, with strong potential for moving into a deficit in spite of available reserves during the latter half of this decade.

Investment in new and increased production, workforce training, technological solutions, and an expanded recycling market will all be key to supporting a sustainable economy in North America and beyond.

Clarifying the numbers

Due to unpredictable sociopolitical influences and as laws pass or fail, there are few forecasts attempted past 2040. Several factors complicate projections of global lithium demand in the interim and indicate that supply workarounds are needed, even with mining and prospecting going full bore:

Widely differing and improving proprietary designs: there is no typical amount of lithium in an EV battery, depending on chemistry and size. A Tesla Model S battery, for example, contains around 62 kilograms (138 pounds) of lithium, while the next iteration of Hyundai Ioniq may be more representative of a future average at roughly 10 kg (22 lb).

With the original industry projections of EV purchases only comprising a third of new car sales by 2040, adding government bans on gas-powered vehicle sales would have EVs leap to 25% of new car sales in 2030 and over 60% by 2035.

American businesses, vehicles, battery components, and materials need to be largely home-grown to take advantage of the Biden administration's incentives, grants and loans in the U.S. clean energy and transportation industries.

U.S. mining engineering programs and, by extension, qualified workforce numbers have gone down for years since the dissolution of the former U.S. Bureau of Mines, which removed all funding for mining schools under the Mining and Mineral Resource Institutes Act of 1984.

"We're going to need a significant increase in battery production to supercharge America's clean energy future, which means we urgently need to build up our capacity to research, develop, manufacture, and market batteries right here at home," said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm.

"Strengthening our domestic supply chain will accelerate our efforts to decarbonize the economy –helping to power electric vehicles and boost grid storage and resiliency," she added. "We must seize the opportunity for the U.S. to lead an emerging global industry to create good-paying jobs for American workers that will be in demand for decades to come."

How much do we need?

With the updated projections for EV and stationary storage battery demand increasing by as much as ten-fold by 2030, the world will need at least 1.1 million metric tons of lithium annually, nearly ten times what is currently being produced, according to projections by the International Energy Agency.

Expansion has thus far been facilitated by new and existing mining operations scaling to match demand, shrewd early investments from countries like China, and constantly improving extraction processes, which are themselves utilizing greener industrial technologies such as battery-electric vehicle fleets and equipment.

The brunt of net-zero objectives rests heavily on first decarbonizing the transportation industry in three of the largest EV markets – the European Union, the U.S., and China.

To meet those demands, the IEA proposed that construction of an additional 50 to 65 gigafactories averaging 35 GWh of annual production capacity would be needed by 2030.

Playing the long game

While the U.S. originated the lithium industry and led the world until the mid-1990s, there is now only one operational lithium mine in Nevada, with production at a modest 5,000 tons a year, which means that the U.S. will struggle in this decade to break its dependence on raw and processed mineral imports.

Similarly, Canada's limited production of lithium tapered off in 2021. Several companies have since been working to revitalize the industry, developing about two dozen new lithium projects from traditional hardrock mining as well as less conventional oilfield brines and industrial wastewaters across Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

Incentivized by policies like DOE's Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize, more automakers and dealerships have begun to partner with EV and hybrid battery recycling and refurbishing businesses to offload retired batteries into second-life, disassembly, or end-of-life materials recycling.

Over the last five years, a growing number of traditional automotive companies such as Volkswagen, BMW, General Motors, and Ford have taken a page from Tesla's book and also begun to directly invest in mining operations and even develop their own battery production and recycling facilities to better establish and control an efficient and circular supply chain and pricing.

A clause in the industry-sweeping U.S. Inflation Reduction Act has designated EV battery materials recycled in the U.S. as American-made, regardless of their origin, encouraging automakers worldwide to take advantage in order to qualify for EV production incentives as a boost to North America's developing recycling industry.

"If you give me a lithium-ion battery pack, I probably will give you money back for it. And that's the beauty of it. The intrinsic value of that battery pack is higher than the cost of recycling," said Dirk Spiers, founder and CEO of Spiers New Technologies, which services a growing list of companies, including GM, Ford, Stellantis, Porsche, Volkswagen, Nissan, Toyota and Volvo.

Mining companies are also beginning to explore integrated conversion facilities, developing processing capacity in tandem with extraction. Meanwhile, more auto manufacturers are constructing vehicle, battery, and recycling capacity into connected complexes.

Introducing urban mining

Like all conventional mining, lithium takes its own environmental toll with carbon emissions, water, and land degradation, necessitating a push for options with a lower environmental footprint.

If further regulatory support and a robust infrastructure can be developed, a new era of recycling –coined "urban mining" – has the goal of being cost-effective enough to make up the supply shortfall where higher-cost deposits would otherwise need to be developed to meet demand.

Most consumer electronics, laptops, phones and EVs are not yet being produced with recycled minerals, and only about 20 to 30% of e-waste is being recycled at all.

BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, and Honda are in the handful of name-brand exceptions utilizing actual closed-loop components in vehicles today.

"All cars are essentially crushed and shredded and then all that steel is recycled and goes right back into new cars," said Mike O'Kronley, CEO of Ascend Elements, a U.S. battery recycler. "That industry is already there. And so what needs to develop is the recycling for the metals in the lithium-ion batteries [to] put them back into the supply chain. That's what we're doing."

Outdated, toxic, and carbon-heavy methods of smelting and leaching have been vastly improved upon; from battery shredding to automated disassembly, upcycling as stationary storage, refurbishment, or complete breakdown into mineral components ready to rejoin the supply chain.

"With all these batteries in circulation, it just seems super obvious that eventually we're going to build a remanufacturing ecosystem," said J.B. Straubel, former chief technical officer of Tesla, who intends to use e-waste from landfills as well.

Redwood Materials is Straubel's brainchild and one of the first wave of emerging companies and well-funded startups solving the challenge of recovering critical minerals from the waste stream and putting them back into manufacturing.

Other North American companies on the fast track to achieving 90% efficiency or better are Li-Cycle, American Battery Technology Company, and Retriev.

There are also a growing number of unconventional lithium resources derived from industrial waste, such as boron and bauxite mining tailings, water waste from oil and gas fields, incorporating filtration into geothermal power plant processes, and modifying existing ocean desalination projects.

Greenlighting a revolution

The cumulative demand for critical minerals at home, in our transportation and broadening swathes of industry is less of a growth curve than an exponential paradigm shift spurred by much-needed international climate change actions, serious adoption of the Paris Agreement international treaty and Tesla's game-changing Model 3, the first mass-produced long-range battery EV.

The forward momentum of these policies and technologies is exactly what is needed to put North America and the world on the right track toward a sustainable net-zero economy built on industries to be proud of and excited for.


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