Lithium, the lightest element of all the metals, is a crucial resource for the United States' clean energy future: it's key in the production of lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, which are used to power electric vehicles and serve as home storage systems. While the U.S. is the largest consumer of lithium and will only increase its future consumption as it strives to meet the Biden Administration's ambitious greenhouse gas emission targets, America's domestic mining of lithium is limited to just one percent of annual global production.
Currently, only one lithium mine operates in the United States, the Silver Peak mine in Clayton Valley, Nevada; most of the global lithium supply is extracted in Chile and Australia. While some politicians are calling for increased domestic mining of the metal, at the end of May 2021, Reuters reported that the Biden Administration would supply the majority of lithium from ally countries, including Canada, Australia, and Brazil. Though this strategy may seem antithetical to the Administration's clean energy jobs goals, it comes on the heels of many environmentalists' concerns over two potential lithium mines in Nevada that could become operational in a few years. In this article, we'll break down lithium mining and why these two mines are so controversial.
Lithium is a crucial metal in electric vehicles and solar batteries
The Biden Administration likely plans to primarily source lithium from ally countries instead of mining it domestically but is looking to become a more dominant player in the lithium-ion battery supply chain
Two proposed lithium mines in the U.S. are in the late planning stages and could become operational but face environmental challenges
Lithium could be mined domestically in the U.S. in an environmentally-friendly way by extracting it from geothermal steam
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In 2019, Australia and Chile led the world in lithium extraction at 52.9 and 21.5 percent, respectively. While China only ranked third in lithium extraction at 9.7 percent, according to BloombergNEF (BNEF), China ranked first overall in the lithium-ion battery supply chain in 2020. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the U.S. is rich in lithium reserves, but according to the Department of Energy (DOE), it "has less than a 10% global market share for manufacturing capacity across all major battery components and cell fabrication." Though the U.S. may not primarily be looking domestically for lithium extraction, in June 2021, the DOE released the "National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries 2021-2030," which details a plan for the U.S. to become a dominant player in the supply chain for lithium-ion batteries.
Lithium is typically mined from two sources: hard rock (usually igneous) or subsurface brine–water with high concentrations of lithium carbonate–reservoirs below dried lake beds. The methods used for mining lithium from hard rock mirror those used for coal mining, oil drilling, and fracking. The ore (rock with valuable minerals) is extracted from either open-pit or underground mines through boring holes drilled hundreds of feet beneath the Earth's surface. This process requires large supplies of water and emits significant amounts of carbon dioxide. Extracting lithium from brine lake deposits requires even more water and typically takes place in areas already experiencing drought conditions; however, it is typically a cheaper process than mining lithium from hard rock.
While the Silver Peak mine extracts lithium from brine, the two proposed lithium mines, Thatcher Pass and Rhyolite Ridge, would employ open-pit mining techniques. Both mines would extract lithium from less traditional sources: Thatcher Pass from clay and Rhyolite Ridge from sedimentary rock. However, the two mines also present controversial environmental challenges, which could impede their development.
The Thatcher Patch open-pit mine, owned by Lithium Nevada Corporation, would use sulfuric acid to concentrate lithium from clay. Thatcher Pass's primary controversy stems from its expedited approval, which opponents say did not include a thorough enough environmental impact statement and minimized its environmental consequences. While the mine would produce significant amounts of battery-grade lithium (about 66,000 metric tons annually for 41 years), it would also cause substantial damage to the surrounding area. It would impact species ranging from a threatened species of trout to the sage grouse. It would also use billions of gallons of water and contaminate local groundwater, potentially to levels exceeding federal standards. Four conservation groups have filed federal claims to challenge the mine's approval, arguing that it would violate the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
Ioneer Ltd's Rhyolite Ridge open-pit mine would extract both lithium and boron from sedimentary rock using sulphuric acid. Because the boron would be jointly extracted, Rhyolite Ridge would be the lowest-cost lithium mine in the world, reducing the cost of the element by over two-thirds. Over its projected 26-year lifetime, Ioneer anticipates extracting about 63.8 million metric tons of lithium: enough to power 400,000 electric vehicles. However, the lithium and boron-rich soil also provides the harsh environment needed for a rare species of wildflower to grow, called Tiehm's buckwheat, and it is only found right where the mine is proposed for construction.
Recent degradation attributed to small mammals has already substantially impacted the wildflower's population. In June 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it proposed to protect the flower under the Endangered Species Act. The agency found that, combined with the recent population decline, the mine would reduce the wildflower's population by 70 to 88 percent. While this listing could hinder the mine's progress, the area could still be mined if it is deemed economically significant, as long as its construction will not result in the wildflower's extinction.
Though, according to Reuters, the Biden Administration doesn't plan to primarily look domestically for lithium mining, there are ways in which the U.S. could mine lithium with low environmental impact. The Salton Sea, a lithium-rich lake in California, is one area currently being explored for lithium production. The lake lies above a geothermal reservoir that is currently used to produce electricity through geothermal power plants. The geothermal steam is saturated with lithium, which could be extracted using devices called scrubbers. This plant could thus continue to produce renewable geothermal energy while adding to the domestic lithium supply.
Reuters also reported in early June 2021 that the Biden Administration plans to increase recycling of lithium batteries in the U.S., which could reduce the projected need for lithium by 25 percent.
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