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The Lithium Even Elon Couldn’t Buy

Demand for lithium will be booming over the next few years, and the US wants to increase its share in the global market for the metal used in electric vehicle and cell phone batteries, energy storage, and consumer products.

Bloomberg NEF forecasts global demand for lithium will double by 2025 to about 800,000 tons. Electric vehicle batteries will make up the lion’s share of that demand, followed by consumer electronics and energy storage. With this booming demand, the U.S. is desperate to dominate the lithium production market.

San Diego-based company EnergySource is taking on this challenge by bringing a new lithium extraction technique to market that can reduce lithium costs when compared to importing the metal from a small number of global markets capable of keeping the cost high. It also taps into a specific lithium supply that companies have been trying to access for decades.

This supply is nested beneath geothermal power plants that have been operating next to one of the world’s geothermal hot spots — the Salton Sea in the California desert, where the plants have been operating since the 1980s. It’s such a hot market that, not long ago, Tesla chief Elon Musk made a bid on a competitor — Simbol Materials — for $325 million. The company went bust shortly after and Tesla and its competitors have had to wait for another supplier from the rare metal market.

Major lithium projects underway in the US include Piedmont Lithium’s hard rock lithium project in North Carolina; Standard Lithium’s Arkansas Smackover lithium brine project; and Lithium Americas’ Thacker Pass lithium claystone project in Nevada. In addition, output last year came from a Nevada-based brine operation, most likely in the Clayton Valley, which hosts Albemarle’s Silver Peak mine.

The actual production in the US can only be estimated, with top lithium producers in the US choosing to withhold production numbers from Investment News to avoid disclosing proprietary company data. The US is one of the nine largest lithium producers in the world, with Australia, Chile, China, and Argentina leading the global industry.

It was the focus of a May conference in Washington featuring speakers from Tesla, the US Dept. of State and Dept. of Energy, as well as Standard Lithium Ltd. and other companies working to develop U.S. lithium mines.

Tesla, Volkswagen, other carmakers, and battery manufacturers are expanding their EV and lithium-ion battery output. They’re frustrated with being reliant on mineral imports without a major push to develop more domestic mines and processing facilities.

US Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who is chair of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said at the May conference that she would be introducing the American Mineral Security Act with Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. The legislation was written to streamline regulation and permitting requirements for the development of mines for lithium, graphite, and other EV supply chain minerals. The senators see it as part of a plan to offset China’s dominance in the space.

“Our challenge is still a failure to understand the vulnerability we are in as a nation when it comes to reliance on others for our minerals,” Murkowski said.

The Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources is looking at an amended version of the American Mineral Security Act. A similar version of the bill is now being considered in the House of Representatives.

Making electric vehicles has been costly mainly due to the battery packs and the precious lithium used in nearly all of them. Solid-state batteries and other options for EV batteries are being developed, yet lithium is expected to dominate the EV battery space for years. Harvesting that metal inside the US is expected to be a stepping stone to compete with the huge Chinese EV market.

While U.S. lithium production is slowly ramping up, breakthroughs like exploiting the Salton Sea could end up being a game-changer for the industry. The energy division of Berkshire Hathaway has been working with the US Dept. of Energy to resolve the challenges that have blocked lithium extraction at the Salton Sea, and one day soon we may see a true American lithium revolution.

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