Open pit mines in North Carolina provided most of the world’s lithium in the mid-20th century. They shut down in the 1980s as Americans rejected mining as a dirty, unsavory industry. Now Australia has most of the lithium extracted from ‘hard rock’ ore mines. Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina are the leaders for mining lithium-containing salts through evaporating brine from underground resources. These four countries export their lithium to China where it’s refined and processed.
Nevada’s Silver Peak Mine is our only existing source, and its lithium carbonate produced by evaporating salty groundwater is shipped to China for processing, too. Since China is also one of the top countries with lithium resources, it has a near-monopoly on both lithium availability and battery production.
President Biden signed a Defense Production Act determination in March which ensures our lithium and other battery minerals come from US sources. It has bipartisan support just as the Chips & Science Act which Congress adopted will help us be a viable producer of microchips.
Mining startup Piedmont Lithium hopes to re-start open pit, dynamite-blasting mining operations northwest of Charlotte. It’ll require 2.3 million gallons of water daily. The company is still waiting for a state mining permit. It also needs rezoning approval from Gaston County where the commissioners and NIMBY residents are cool to the project.
Another major prospect is Thacker Pass Mine (open pit) in Nevada. It’s being built on an extinct volcano site with the largest known lithium deposit in North America and perhaps the world. Native American tribes, ranchers, and environmental groups say it will desecrate a sacred tribal burial ground, deplete a drought-dried water table, and burn 26,000 gallons of diesel fuel every day. The US Bureau of Land Management has approved the project, however, and the state has issued permits.
Some of the other prospective Nevada mines moving forward are more environmentally friendly; Utah and California prospects are even more so.
Before it dried up 12,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville swept lithium from surrounding rocks and concentrated it in its sediment. Utah’s Great Salt Lake retains many of those remnants. Compass Minerals is piloting a technology which binds chemical compounds to lithium, allowing it to be more easily removed from the brine. Compass already has the infrastructure in place. It also uses wind and solar power (vs. natural gas) for the evaporation processes.
Salton Sea is a shallow, landlocked, and highly saline lake in southern California. Berkshire Hathaway has ten geothermal power plants there which pump 500,000 gallons of brine per minute and generate clean electricity. It has state and federal grants for lithium demonstration projects, and another firm expects to drill into the lakebed and produce lithium, too. The California Energy Commission says Salton Sea has enough lithium to meet all of the US’s projected future demand plus 40% of the world demand.
We’re definitely living in challenging and exciting times.
The Earth is Sacred – Not Ours to Wreck