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The lithium boom: What's holding back a lithium rush in the U.S.?

The U.S. sits on some of the largest lithium reserves in the world.

It’s a key element for clean energy.

Today, On Point: The start of On Point’s weeklong exploration “Elements of energy” takes us inside America’s push for a lithium boom.


Scott Lake, Nevada staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Also Featured

Daranda Hinkey, co-founder of People of Red Mountain, an activist group working to protect indigenous lands from the impact of mining. Member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribes of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation in Nevada and Oregon.

Larry McDaniel, Kings Mountain, North Carolina resident who worked at the city’s lithium mine and processing facility for 38 years.

Daniel Greene, Kings Mountain resident who worked at the city’s lithium mine and processing facility for 45 years.

Jim Palenick, city manager of Kings Mountain, North Carolina.

Raef Sully, CEO of Lilac Solutions, a California-based lithium extraction company.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Elements of energy: Mining for a green future. Welcome. All this week, we are taking a detailed look at four elements critical for a clean energy economy.

Today, it’s episode one, the lithium boom. What’s holding back a lithium rush in the U.S.?

Ernest Scheyder is author of The War Below: Lithium, Copper and the Global Battle to Power Our Lives. He’ll be with us throughout the week with quick primers on each element.

ERNEST SCHEYDER: Lithium is the lightest metal on the periodic table of elements. It’s also very good at retaining an electric charge. That makes this white-colored metal the perfect anchor for the lithium ion battery. Chile and Australia are the world’s largest lithium producers, and China is the world’s largest lithium processor.

CHAKRABARTI: But when it comes to lithium that’s still in the ground, it’s the United States that has some of the largest lithium deposits in the world. At least 14 million metric tons, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

A lot of those deposits are in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. Population: Roughly 12,000. Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 30 miles west of Charlotte.

From 1938 to 1988, lithium from Kings Mountain was a key ingredient in a whole range of global products. Things like ceramics, glass, pharmaceuticals, pacemakers and paints. For about 30 years, the region supplied almost all the lithium in the world.

DANIEL GREENE: I grew up in Kings Mountain, right outside the mine.

CHAKRABARTI: Daniel Greene is retired now, but he was 20 years old when he got his first mining job in 1972. Back then, it was owned by the Foote Mineral Company.

GREENE: They would drill 20 foot [sic] deep. And then they’d drop dynamite down in it, pack the dynamite and all, and then when they blasted, it’d bust all that rock loose and then they could get it out of the mine and everything.

CHAKRABARTI: Daniel and his team were looking for rocks containing spodumene. It’s a greenish-white mineral with high concentrations of lithium. North Carolina is home to one of the richest deposits in North America — a one-mile wide, 25 mile-long band called the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt.

GREENE: Anytime you mess around in a mine like that, you know, it gets kind of dusty because you’re busting up rocks and everything like that. But it is a great place to work. There’s all kinds of minerals there and all.

CHAKRABARTI: Larry McDaniel started working at the mine in 1975.

LARRY MCDANIEL: We were still using the old cable shovels. The largest truck we had was a 35 ton haul truck. We had dozers and loaders, etc. I just enjoyed working on big, heavy equipment.

CHAKRABARTI: He followed his dad, who’d worked there since the 50s.

MCDANIEL: I guess you could call me a lithium brat. You know, kind of like a military brat. (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: Larry and Daniel worked together for years. Daniel even shared the nickname Larry has around Kings Mountain.

GREENE: (LAUGHS) Oh, Stub? He was so short and all, that’s what everybody called him all the time.

CHAKRABARTI: But by 1988, lithium demand dropped. The Foote Mineral Company shut down the Kings Mountain mine. Deposits in Chile were cheaper to extract.

MCDANIEL: In Kings Mountain, you had to drill it, blast it, crush it, run it through the mill, mill it, then go to a lithium hydroxide process. Where it was costing us, say, $1.70 a ton to make lithium hydroxide, we could do it in Chile for about 50 cents a ton.

CHAKRABARTI: Foote Mineral closed the mine, but the Kings Mountain lithium processing facility remained open. Today, less than 1% of global lithium is mined in the United States, all from Nevada, which we’ll hear about later.

The old Kings Mountain mine has completely changed. It’s now a hundred acre lake, surrounded by trees and hiking trails. Leftover mining rubble makes up a steep climb that locals call Cardio Hill.

GREENE: It was like 560 people in the heyday. And then had a massive layoff when we shut the mine down. We kept just struggling along and everything. But we let the mine fill up with water.

CHAKRABARTI: Sounds like the familiar tale of an American community, once home to important industry and good jobs, abandoned for cheaper materials and labor abroad. That could have been the end of the story for Kings Mountain. But, it’s not.

ERIC NORRIS: This is such a special occasion for us.

CHAKRABARTI: This is Eric Norris, head of the Energy Storage business unit at the Albemarle Corporation. The company acquired the Kings Mountain mine in 2015. Norris was speaking at a town hall in March 2022.

NORRIS: Kings Mountain could supply a million to a million and a half electric vehicles.

CHAKRABARTI: Albemarle is a specialty chemical manufacturing company headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, not far from Kings Mountain. It’s the world’s largest lithium producer. For years, Albemarle used its Kings Mountain site to process lithium extracted in Chile and Nevada. And now, Albemarle plans to reopen the mine. Why?

Though still volatile, global demand for electric vehicles continues to rise.

As a result, the price of lithium has skyrocketed. In 2022 alone, lithium prices shot up by 400%, reaching as high as $50,000 per ton. There have been corrections since then, primarily due to decisions made in the Chinese EV market. But Albemarle is still betting that the clean energy push will make the Kings Mountain mine a winner once again.

Albemarle declined our interview requests. But it’s said the mine will create 300 jobs and could open as soon as late 2026. Here’s spokesperson Cindy Estridge in a video produced by the company.

CINDY ESTRIDGE: It’s gonna take us 18 months to dewater this pit because we’re gonna do it very slowly. We could do it much faster but this is going into a small, local creek called Kings Creek, and we don’t want to erode the banks of the creek by doing it too quickly.

JIM PALENICK: You’re talking about these 1,800 acres of otherwise developable lands that can’t become industrial parks, new residential subdivisions, new commerce. Rather, they will be simply a very large hole in the ground.

CHAKRABARTI: Jim Palenick is Kings Mountain city manager. He supports reopening the mine. But he says if Kings Mountain is going to play a major role in America’s clean energy future, he wants more benefits to stay in his community.

PALENICK: Yes, Albemarle will take some spodumene concentrate out. They’ll sell it for a large amount of money. They’ll process it in a new plant that they’re building well down in Richburg, South Carolina for $1.3 billion. They will take all of their research and development professional employees out to Charlotte. And pretty much the only thing the city of Kings Mountain gets out of this is being the host community for this very large mining operation.

CHAKRABARTI: Palenick wants to make sure Kings Mountain gets properly compensated. He points to the substantial federal funding Albemarle Corporation has already received.

PALENICK: The federal government, so they have said nationally, it’s important enough for us to give this private corporation $240 million. That’s because the rest of this country is going to benefit from the product that they produce. If this is worth 240 million of subsidy going to you, is that also worthy of paying that amount for the negative side of it coming back?

CHAKRABARTI: He’s also cautious about repeating history’s mistakes.

PALENICK: I really feel for sort of those West Virginia coal communities where, you know, you have a big open pit mine. They got great value, took it outta the ground, but not that much ever comes back to that poor, you know, West Virginia coal mining community. So we want to take a lesson from those and say, you’re not gonna leave this community that way.

CHAKRABARTI: For Larry McDaniel, who started out operating cable shovels in the Kings Mountain mine in 1975, his mining experience has led to recent consulting jobs with Albemarle. We asked him for more detail. He declined.

But Larry does say this: Kings Mountain was a mining town for some 70 years. When the mine shut down, it hurt. Lithium is often called “white gold”, for its silvery color and high price. McDaniel says, it’s high time that gold rush got started again.

MCDANIEL: I think it’s a fantastic decision. I mean, we did from 19 — well, let’s see, Dad went to work in 1951. And from 1951 to about 1984, when we started winding down the mine, it went on on a daily basis. Nothing different than what Albemarle is proposing now. Kings Mountain is not going to be losing out. It’s actually going to be gaining.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: You’re back with episode one of our special series, Elements of energy: Mining for a green future. And today we are looking at the lithium boom. As you heard, the United States has some of the largest lithium deposits in the world, but less than 1% of global lithium is currently mined in the United States.

That’s poised to change, because the domestic market for lithium is roaring back.

JOE BIDEN: See that sucker over there? 0 to 60 in 4.1 seconds. It’s all electric. I tell you what.

CHAKRABARTI: August 5th, 2021. President Biden stood on the South Lawn of the White House, backed by fresh off the line electric versions of popular American cars.

That day, Biden signed an executive order calling for more ambitious vehicle emissions standards and for electric vehicles to make up half of all new vehicle sales in this country by 2030. The heads of automakers Ford, GM, and Stellantis joined Biden at the White House, and during the speech, he glanced over at General Motors CEO Mary Barra.

BIDEN: And I want to say publicly, I have a commitment from Mary, when they make the first electric Corvette, I get to drive it, right Mary?

CHAKRABARTI: In March of 2023, GM formally introduced the all-electric Corvette E-Ray. It touts a six-figure price tag. And don’t know if he’s ever driven one, but Biden did climb into an orange electric Corvette at the 2022 Detroit Car Show.

More importantly, Biden’s administration is the first to directly tie electric vehicle goals to primary source mining in this country. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act comes with hefty EV tax credits, but they only apply if the materials used to make the vehicles, batteries included, come from the United States or nations in free trade agreements with the U.S.

Hence, the vast sums of federal funding such as the $240 million dollars that’s already gone to Albemarle Corporation in North Carolina for lithium mining. Joining us now is Scott Lake. He’s Nevada staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, and he joins us from Reno. Scott, welcome to On Point.

SCOTT LAKE: Thanks Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, tell us from your perspective, do you think that the clean energy revolution, I should say, that the Biden administration has envisioned, will be possible without a massive increase in lithium mining in the U.S.?

LAKE: I think we are going to need to produce some lithium domestically.

And that’s something that we, at the Center for Biological Diversity have acknowledged for a long time. So minerals are going to be necessary for changing our transportation system and adapting to climate change. I think the question we’re facing now is, is this going to be business as usual mining, which has had devastating impacts on communities and landscapes throughout the world, or are we going to have a different approach where we prioritize mining techniques and locations that have fewer impacts?

CHAKRABARTI: Just to get a sense as to how much might be in the pipeline in terms of the expansion of mining, particularly in the Western United States. When we spoke with your colleague, Patrick Donnelly, he described the coming expansion of mining activity in the West as so large, it makes the gold rush pale in comparison.

He says it could be for, specifically for lithium, it could be the largest expansion of mining activity in the history of the Western United States. Can you describe essentially what’s in the pipeline or what’s planned for lithium mining just in Nevada alone?

LAKE: Sure. Patrick is absolutely right. The scale of this proposed lithium rush makes the gold rush really pale in comparison.

There are 83 lithium mine proposals in Nevada alone. And there are 130 across the West. If even half of these get built, it would be the most dramatic expansion of mining activity in the history of the West. And as I mentioned earlier, some of these projects at least could have some devastating impacts on both ecosystems and communities.

It’s a really complicated matter though, because with that dramatic expansion of mining comes, ideally, jobs and this essential element for the batteries that are going to make up the clean energy future.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell us a little bit about the practices, the current practices for lithium mining in Western sites?

How is it extracted from the ground and then refined into usable lithium?

LAKE: You basically have two ways of getting lithium out of the ground, two fundamental ways. One is your traditional open pit clay mining. And that’s the kind of mining you’ve heard about already on the show. The other is brine extraction, where you have the salty water that’s been deposited in subterranean aquifers.

You can extract that water, and then extract lithium from that water. Those are basically the two kinds of lithium extraction that we have today. The Albemarle plant here in Nevada is a brine evaporation operation. So what they’re doing is they’re pumping brine out of the ground. About 3 to 6 billion, that’s with a B, gallons of water are pumped at that operation per year.

And the water is essentially evaporated off, which leaves behind salt deposits, which are then processed into lithium. That’s the same kind of extraction that we generally see in South America, which is where most of our lithium for the American market comes from today.

CHAKRABARTI: Every time you pick up a phone, for example or drive an EV that’s already out there, you’re definitely driving with, using some lithium that you said has come from, primarily from Chile.

Like, how large are these brine evaporation areas that the lithium mining processes use?

LAKE: They’re massive. It’s a huge land use commitment. And I don’t have an exact figure for you, but I can tell you that both here in Nevada and in South America, you can look at Google earth and then see these things pretty clearly from the satellite photos.

So it’s a significant use of space.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, so we’re talking about brine, right? So it’s not fresh groundwater, but it’s groundwater nonetheless. Is that right?

LAKE: That’s right. And you have in a lot of these places, aquifers in layers. So the lithium operations will generally pull from the brine layer, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t all interconnected.

What we’ve seen at the Silver Peak facility, for example, is that even though that’s extracting brine, it has caused the freshwater aquifers in the area to drop.

CHAKRABARTI: And has there been any visible or not just visible, but environmental impact from that drop?

LAKE: Yes, the groundwater level and wells has gone down and springs have gone dry.

This isn’t an area that has a whole lot of human habitation or a lot of groundwater dependent ecosystems at this point. It’s not an area that’s having the kind of impact that we are mostly concerned about. It’s not a place where, for example, a species is threatened with extinction, but there are environmental impacts from that mining.

CHAKRAARTI: Okay, but just in that location, that part of Nevada, as far as I understand, there are, what, 50 to 60 more proposed brine projects for that area. Is that right?

LAKE: Not necessarily for that area specifically, I think what we’re looking at is a 50 to 60 projects. And when we can talk about this too, 50 to 60 projects using direct, with the extraction technology. And that’s a recent technological development that really hasn’t been used at a commercial scale yet. But shows promise.

So about, of those, about 130 projects they mentioned earlier, about 50 to 60 of those are direct lithium extraction or DLE.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so actually this is our opportunity to learn more about this process which is different than the brine evaporation or open pit mining, I think that you talked about before.

And I just want to emphasize what you said. It hasn’t been used at scale commercially yet, but looks like there’s a lot of places that are interested in using it. So what is it? In order to find out that answer, we spoke with Lilac Solutions. It’s a startup that was founded in 2016. It’s based in Oakland, California.

CEO Raef Sully says Lilac uses a process called direct lithium extraction.

RAEF SULLY: We bring the water out of the brine, the salt water from underground, we pump it up, it runs through the DLE unit, we extract the lithium, and then we pump the water back down.

CHAKRABARTI: So obviously the big difference there, no massive evaporation ponds, just tanks that are filtering out the lithium from the brine.

And Sully says Lilac Solutions’ process depends on a special kind of bead.

SULLY: You have a bead or a resin, which is a metal oxide. I can’t tell you the secrets of our beads, because that’s what makes us special, but they have a propensity or a selectivity for lithium. So as the brine washes over, our beads absorb the lithium out of solution, and then we wash the beads to extract the lithium, and the brine goes back into the ground.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Sully says this method is better for the environment than open pit mining or evaporation. He claims it may also be cheaper. But now, to emphasize again, no company is yet using DLE at a commercial scale. But Sully says Lilac Solutions did have success with a demonstration plant in Argentina.

SULLY: The thing you need to realize about a demonstration plant is that the internal workings, so the vessel that holds the beads, is about one third the size of the vessels that would hold the beads on a commercial scale.

On a commercial scale, we would have many more of these side by side. The next step for us would be a small commercial facility where we would look to try and produce somewhere between three and 5,000 tons in a year.

CHAKRABARTI: Sully says he hopes Lilac Solutions is only a couple of years away from that small commercial facility. They just raised $145 million for some big-name companies such as Mitsubishi, BMW, and Bill Gates’ clean energy fund called Breakthrough Energy Ventures. So that’s where the money came from. And where this new facility might be?

Sully says Lilac is eyeing Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

SULLY: That’s the most likely position for the moment. I think we will develop the Great Salt Lake. I don’t know whether it’s the first one we do. Or the second one. At the moment it looks like it’s going to be the first one. There are a couple of other conversations we’re having.

I just can’t disclose who they’re with or where they are. But certainly, I think Great Salt Lake is very likely to be the first one we do. It will happen. It’s a good resource. It does need our technology though. Other DLE technologies are not as capable at lower concentrations as ours is.

CHAKRABARTI: Once the direct lithium extraction facility is built, whether at the Great Salt Lake or elsewhere, Sully says this is what it will look like from the outside.

SULLY: An industrial warehouse, I think, is the best way. It’s going to be enclosed in a warehouse. There’ll be a pipe in and a pipe out and a car park and maybe an office building and some cars in the car park. It probably all fits within a five-acre block.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Raef Sully, CEO of the lithium startup Lilac Solutions based in Oakland, California.

Scott Lake with the Center for Biological Diversity in Reno. Is there a bit of a mismatch in timing here. That if this one particular DLE startup says they still actually haven’t had a commercial scale processing facility successfully constructed. Is there a mismatch between that and the fact that you just said that 50 to 60 of the proposed lithium mining operations in Nevada are thinking that they’re going to use DLE.

LAKE: I think there are 2 things going into the number of projects we’re seeing.

One, as you mentioned earlier, is the price of lithium. It’s just made, the high demand, the high price means that we have a lot of projects, whether those projects are ultimately viable or not, I don’t know, that will be seen in time. And I think what is also reflects, though, and this might be the more important point is that DLE is an extremely promising technology. It could really be a kind of silver bullet where you don’t have to have the sort of land impacts that you have with an open pit mine. You don’t have to waste billions of gallons of groundwater and an evaporation operation. It can be a lot more efficient.

It could potentially be cheaper. So in a lot of ways, DLE could solve some of the problems we’re seeing with lithium extraction and resolve some of these conflicts now. That does depend on whether it can be deployed on a commercial scale, but I think the reason you’re seeing this interest is because, the first company, the first few companies that are able to do this are probably staying to make a lot of money.

CHAKRABARTI: So tell us a little bit more about what the statewide perspectives are on the lithium boom that looks like is coming to Nevada. Who are the different stakeholders and what do they have to say about the hundred, or actually across the West, it’s more than 100 projects, but the dozens of projects lined up for the state of Nevada.

LAKE: I think on one hand, you have the state and the federal government really getting behind lithium extraction and really not discriminating very much between methods or locations. It’s definitely something that’s being encouraged by both the federal government and local government. On the other hand, you have, organizations like ours concerned about the environment communities that could be impacted. Native American communities and farming communities. From some of these impacts you’ve already discussed, including open pit mining and groundwater depletion and pollution potentially.

It’s really a balancing act. I think our position has been that we don’t want to be fighting lithium mines all day. And we think the solution is some proactive planning that it prioritizes development in areas where these conflicts are not going to occur. Areas where you don’t have groundwater dependent ecosystems, areas where mining is not going to impact local communities.

And some of this technological innovation we’ve heard about could definitely play a part in that.

CHAKRABARTI: What’s your overall take on the cost benefit of the need for lithium for a more electrified future versus the impacts that you just talked about. Is there any way to balance them?

LAKE: We think there is. There absolutely is a way to have both. I think the thing to keep in mind is that in addition to the climate crisis there is an equally pressing biodiversity crisis with species going extinct at an extraordinary rate. And in addressing the climate crisis, we don’t want to exacerbate the biodiversity crisis, which in the long term threatens our future just as much.

We have a choice to make here. Are we going to do this, like I said earlier, as business as usual, or are we going to do this differently with the benefit of some of these lessons we learned in the past? I think it can definitely be, this can definitely be done in a way. Where the benefits are maximized, and the costs are minimized.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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