One of the biggest challenges for building electric-car batteries has been sourcing enough lithium, which is mostly mined overseas. Though the world has no shortage of lithium, mining and processing operations haven't yet met growing demand for lithium batteries for cars and electronics.
Now, a new lithium mine is working to get permits to open strip mining operations a few miles outside Charlotte, North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer reported.
Until the 1980s, the foothills of North Carolina were considered the mother lode of lithium for products such as lubrication and ceramics.
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Most of the world's lithium now comes from great lithium salt ponds in the Atacama desert on the border of Argentina and Chile, or from China. In 2018, only one operation mined lithium in the U.S., in the desert of northwestern Nevada, an operation that has been going on since 1966, though other lithium mining operations are starting nearby.
More than half the global supply of lithium was used for batteries in the last year, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, and the government aims to boost lithium production in the U.S.
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Piedmont Lithium Limited has begun applying for permits to reopen the mine 25 miles west of Charlotte for strip mining. The company says it would be the only hard-rock lithium mining operation in the U.S. In its heyday from 1955 through the 1980s, the mine supplied most of the lithium in the U.S. before overseas supplies became cheaper. Operations continued there until 1990.
The company expects the mine still contains enough lithium to extract profitably for at least 13 years at current prices.
Two operations in the area still process imported lithium into the lithium hydroxide required to make batteries and other products.
The effort to reopen the mine comes at least partly in response to an executive order by the Trump administration last May that declared lithium one of 35 “critical minerals” that the U.S. needs to develop more from domestic supplies to reduce dependence on imports.
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In another report in February, the USGS said “Lithium supply security has become a top priority for technology companies in the United States and Asia.” It noted that the U.S. sits on 11 percent of the world’s supplies of the critical mineral, but produces only a tiny fraction of the lithium required in the batteries, ceramics, and drugs that it needs.
Lithium production has soared by 74 percent in 2017 and by another 22 percent in 2018, and U.S. imports of lithium have doubled since 2014.
Piedmont plans to break ground and begin drilling test shafts to document the reserves at the mine this year and open full strip-mining operations at the site by early 2021. It also plans to open its own lithium-hydroxide chemical processing plant nearby a few years after that.
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“From our perspective we are moving as swiftly as we can do so responsibly,” Piedmont CEO Keith Phillips told the Observer. “We think the lithium market will grow remarkably for at least a couple of decades.”
Two other companies also have lithium processing plants nearby, Albemarle and Livent. The southern North Carolina lithium industry could be well-placed to supply lithium for battery factories that Mercedes-Benz is building in Alabama for its upcoming line of EQ electric cars and SUVs and another in Georgia by battery supplier SK Innovations.