Lithium mining in the United States: where it stands today
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Lithium, an alkali metal, is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to making a renewable energy-powered world a reality. Lithium-ion batteries are the top choice for car batteries and solar storage because they have a long lifespan and are incredibly efficient.
Lithium is an important resource that is utilized in several products from laptops and cell phones to electric car batteries. Yet, the United States is home to just one operating lithium mine. Despite having plenty of lithium reserves containing up to 9.1 million tons, plans for new mines are stalled. There are several reasons why construction is being put on hold, from cheaper import options to local opposition.
We’ll get you up to speed on where the U.S. is now in terms of mining for lithium and what we anticipate is to come.
Lithium deposits are traditionally mined from rock and brine, which is lithium-rich water. Another mining method is using water that is a byproduct of geothermal heat plants. This can solve two problems at once by creating emissions-free geothermal energy and utilizing lithium at the same time.
Lithium is prolific. This alkali metal can be found in many states in the U.S. as well as all over the world. While mining for lithium is not necessarily complicated, certain mining methods can cause pollution and take up large amounts of space – two main reasons mines are not always popular.
Read more about geothermal energy here.
Although lithium can be found all over the United States, there is only one operating mine in the country: the Albemarle Silver Peak Mine in Nevada. This mine uses the brine extraction method to pull lithium deposits from under the earth's surface. The brine is usually found below the surface of dry lake beds and typically in deserts.
There are plans to open up more mines in Nevada, California, Arkansas, and North Carolina, which will help reach the previously-stated goal of supplying lithium domestically and via strategic partners by 2030.
It takes a fair amount of time before raw lithium or lithium-ion batteries reach the United States. Currently, the U.S. gets most of its lithium from South America or Australia.
Typically, the mined lithium is processed and turned into batteries in China. That's at least two more continents the lithium lands in before the final product is complete. Not to mention the emissions released along the way when shipping the lithium between countries.
As the pandemic has taught us, a long supply chain can lead to several snags such as long wait times or price increases. To combat this, the United States wants to increase the domestic production of lithium to avoid such issues in the future.
The idea of adding lithium mines is not always met with enthusiasm, though. There is the fear of pollution as well as pushback from native tribes whose sacred land would be tarnished.
Deep, lithium-rich water is extracted from below the surface and left to evaporate for the lithium to be easily sourced. Image source: Bloomberg
Similar to mining for other metals and resources, the process of mining lithium is not the best for the environment due to land use, water use, and the harmful emissions released during the mining process.
Additionally, these mines take up large surface areas, extract huge amounts of soil, or need space for water to evaporate. The two traditional methods mentioned earlier, rock and brine extraction, need groundwater to operate the mines. Using this water can leave it polluted while also leaving less water for local communities and natural environments.
Perhaps ironically, the equipment to power lithium mines uses fossil fuels, emitting greenhouse gasses in the process. Due to the environmental impacts and the sheer amount of space that lithium mines take up, people around the world are protesting their existence.
The environmental concerns are valid, but it is also true that lithium is a key element needed for the renewable energy transition that is necessary to mitigate global warming.
As noted earlier, extracting brine from geothermal heat plants is a good option because the geothermal plants themselves create energy and have the smallest environmental impact. This lithium mining process uses less water, less land, and emits zero carbon emissions compared to rock and underground reservoir mining.
Lithium is a core component of lithium-ion batteries, and lithium-ion batteries are the best batteries for recharging and powering the technology we use in our daily lives. Lithium-ion batteries are in cell phones, laptops, electric vehicles, and rechargeable storage batteries.
Batteries are going to be extremely important as the world moves towards a renewable grid. Since the sun does not shine 24/7 and the wind does not always blow, batteries will be needed to keep energy on hand for times of low production.
There can be an energy imbalance during the sunniest parts of the day when energy might not be used the most, and at night time when energy use is typically more. Lithium-ion batteries will be able to store excess energy that can then be utilized when renewable sources are not producing enough electricity for everyone to use.
Obviously, for lithium-ion batteries to work, we need lithium.
As of right now, there are no other options aside from traditional mining methods for lithium. Not mining lithium will mean we won't have a shot at building the battery storage required to keep our grid fossil fuel-free. Mining seems like the lesser of two evils, but fortunately, scientists are working on other ways to increase the lithium supply, such as lithium recycling.
Lithium has been used in electronics for years and once the electronics reach the end of their usable life, they are often thrown out. Current recycling methods rely on energy-intensive processes and acid to break down undesired parts of old batteries.
Fortunately, new methods are being developed that use less energy and can even make the recycled batteries' performance even better. Recycling is nowhere near the point of replacing mining, but once it can be scaled up, recycling lithium will be a key part of the lithium supply chain.
The unfortunate truth is that until recycling can be more manageable or there are alternatives to lithium mining, or even lithium itself, mining for lithium is necessary for a future of clean energy.