While auto manufacturing spent 2020 in a lull because of the pandemic, sales are expected to rebound this year. The forecast is particularly bright for electric vehicles and the lithium-ion batteries that power them.
Albemarle, one of the world’s largest producers of lithium chemicals, is responding with an investment at its site in Silver Peak, Nevada, and several smaller firms are seeking investors to develop lithium deposits of their own. Not only do these companies expect high global demand for the battery material, they say auto makers in North America want secure, sustainable, regional supply.
Albemarle’s remote Nevada site, where it extracts lithium from underground brines, is the only location in the US where lithium is recovered today. The company says it will double capacity for brine extraction there by 2025 at a cost of $30 million to $50 million.
Albemarle’s US operation is modest compared with its others around the world. The company expects only 3% of its output this year to come from it. About half its US production stays in the country for use mainly in industrial products such as glass and lubricants. The other half is exported to Asia where it is made into battery cathode materials, according to Eric Norris, president of Albemarle’s lithium business.
US consumption of lithium for batteries is pretty small today, Norris says, but “our vision is that will change.” He says battery and car makers are working to bring the full supply chain, including lithium-containing cathode materials, to the US. Norris expects the future market for Albemarle’s US lithium production to be “100% US-based and 100% electric vehicles.”
Getting ready for US battery production is a good bet, according to Oliver Heathman, head of sustainability and cost analysis at the UK minerals consulting firm Roskill. While the Silver Peak expansion will be a notable increase in production, Heathman says, it will quickly be sucked up by a sharp increase in US lithium demand as vehicle production grows.
At the same time, the sustainability of the battery supply chain is getting more scrutiny, Heathman notes. Any US lithium producer will have an advantage because it can draw on energy sources such as natural gas, solar, and wind power rather than coal, which is used in most Chinese production. Shorter transport distances also reduce the carbon footprint.
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Albemarle has its eye on additional domestic sources of lithium that it can exploit, if prices allow, Norris says. The firm controls lithium-containing brines in Arkansas that are part of its bromine business. It could resume mining spodumene rock deposits it owns in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, where it operates a lithium chemical plant. The region supplied most of the world’s lithium until the discovery of cheaper deposits in South America in the 1980s.
Another source Albemarle is examining is sedimentary deposits at Silver Peak. Those clay formations are the original source of the lithium in its brines, Norris explains. But the clay contains lower concentrations of lithium than do brines and hard rock deposits. Extracting it, Norris says, would require a sequence of processes that might include membranes, ion exchange resins, solvent extraction, solar evaporation, and electrolysis.
Albemarle is not the only company eying clay deposits. Last September, Tesla executives told participants in a corporate battery day that the car company intends to obtain the mineral from its own Nevada deposits as part of a larger effort to reduce the costs of electric-vehicle batteries.
At the same event, Tesla said it would shift to using nickel, rather than cobalt, in its battery cathodes. Other automakers are following suit, and that will have an impact on how lithium is processed for batteries: Nickel-heavy batteries require lithium hydroxide rather than the lithium carbonate usually generated from mining operations.
Albemarle is working with the US Department of Energy and scientists at Argonne National Laboratory to devise methods for getting high-purity lithium hydroxide directly from lithium-containing brine. The current multistep process requires the production of lithium carbonate as an intermediate.
In addition to Albemarle, a number of smaller players are in various stages of developing lithium resources in North America. Standard Lithium has a joint venture with the chemical maker Lanxess to obtain lithium from brine outside of El Dorado, Arkansas—down the road from Albemarle’s bromine operation. Also in the brine business is Anson Resources, which has a lithium, bromine, and boron project in southern Utah.
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In North Carolina, near where Albemarle operates, newcomer Piedmont Lithium says it plans to start mining spodumene deposits. Meanwhile, Nemaska Lithium is developing a spodumene mine near Chibougamau, Quebec, 800 km (497 mi) north of Quebec City.
And at least one small company, Cypress Development, hopes, like Albemarle and Tesla, to obtain lithium from clay. It owns a deposit adjacent to Albemarle’s Silver Peak mine.
For now, the lion’s share of new lithium production by Albemarle and established competitors like SQM will come from low-cost sources in the southern hemisphere. Half of Albemarle’s lithium is extracted from brine in Chile’s Salar de Atacama. The firm is currently working with Chile’s government to double output.
Another 28% of Albemarle’s production comes from a spodumene joint venture in Western Australia. In 2019, the firm began construction of its Kemerton facility, where it will process Australian rock that it currently ships to China.
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