Lithium mining in the USA: What is it and where does it come from?

Lithium mining in the USA

For the past two decades, lithium has been one of the most major components in the development of high storage batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy systems. As lithium prices skyrocket, some analysts expect that lithium demand will begin to exceed supply. This shift could negatively impact the battery market. 

The United States is the world’s leading lithium producer but America’s lithium mines are relatively less abundant as compared to some countries such as Australia, Chile and China, so the domestic production of lithium is vital for energy security. This is one of the reasons why the federal government is paying close attention to the development of lithium extraction projects in the United States. 

This article provides an overview of how is lithium mined in the US including where it comes from, the challenges, and the opportunities it could bring to the country.

What is lithium mining?

Lithium Mining is the extraction of Lithium from the Earth’s crust. Most people are aware of lithium for its use in electronics and as the mineral that powers batteries in smartphones and other electronics. However, the key use for Lithium remains in the production of electric vehicles batteries. 

Lithium is a mineral found in abundance in Bolivia, Argentina, China, and Chile. But while these countries dominate global lithium production, demand continues to rise globally, especially in the United States.

Lithium ion mining with brine extraction process

A lithium mine is a large, sprawling facility where lithium is extracted from rock. One of the well applied processes is named as brine extraction which is also known as open pit mining. It consists of the pumping mineral-rich brine to the mine surface and further refining process. The brines from these sources are highly mineralized with lithium and other minerals, and the extraction process involves the separation of the minerals using chemical reagents. 

The production of the material from lithium reserves is projected to grow by nearly 60 percent in the coming years. This growth in lithium production is driving the development of new extraction processes for the material. 

How much lithium is on earth?

It may sound far-fetched—but the truth is that lithium is the essential ingredient for all modern gadgets. And the world’s demand for this material is set to skyrocket as demand rises for electric cars and other high-tech devices. 

As per the report by US Geological Survey (USGS), global known lithium reserves were estimated to be about 17 million tons in 2020 and tons in 2021 which is a massive quantity to cope with global energy demands for upcoming years. Researchers estimated that our planet holds huge resources of lithium-rich rocks—enough to power all of the world’s electric cars for up to a few decades.

Worldwide geologists and earth scientists are continuously working to identify more lithium resources considering it a crucial mineral component that is a backbone of battery powered vehicles and renewable energy systems. 

Lithium Mining in the US

The US auto market is truly favoring the rising trend of electric vehicles leading to a huge demand for lithium batteries. As per skyrocketing demand, there is a dire need of about 75,000 tons/year of lithium by 2025 to continue the demanding supply of lithium to automakers. 

Lithium mines in US are striving to fulfill the lithium shortage thanks to soaring demand for electric vehicles and renewable energy systems. But mining lithium for batteries isn’t easy: The deposits are deep underground, require high temperatures and extreme pressures, and generate toxic waste.

Rock and brine are major sources of raw lithium deposits in America. Geologists assume this as the best natural source of lithium, however geothermal heat plants are also generating lithium as a byproduct. 

Where is lithium mined in the US?

When it comes to lithium, some people would like to believe that this element is only found in certain places of Argentina and other regions of the world. While this may be true in a general sense, it is certainly not the case when it comes to lithium mines in US.

In fact, South America has the most concentrated reserve of Lithium in the world, with the U.S. not too far behind. 

Nevada Mines: A big Source of Lithium in the US

The lithium mining industry is exploding in Nevada, and as you may not know, Nevada is the only state with a legal monopoly on mining. Nevada mines are the best source of lithium in the country.

The United States government estimates that lithium resources in the USA total 9.1 Million tons, with roughly 40% located in Nevada. The amount of lithium contained in this resource is estimated to be about one-third of the national reserves, which means the country’s production could provide the United States with a substantial amount of the mineral. However, the United States’ lithium industry has not yet taken off as many other countries have.

Other States of US with abundant lithium resources

When looking at the map of the US, which states do you think have more abundant lithium deposits? Nevada? Arkansas? You might be surprised to learn that there are actually a number of other states that also have lithium resources.

The U.S. Geological Survey has a large database of mineral resources around the country and they found some mega resources in California, Arkansas, and North Carolina that are sufficient enough to meet the crazy demand of lithium throughout the country. 

What is “Lithium Americas” and its role in lithium mining across the US?

Lithium Americas is an organization striving for the lithium mining projects in Argentina and the world famous Thacker Pass mine project in Nevada, USA to accomplish the production goals more effectively.

Lithium Americas is focused on a project aimed at providing a unified platform for sharing news and information related to “lithium ion mineand lithium extraction from the America’s most prolific lithium deposits. 

The Lithium Americas Summits could bring together hundreds of executives, investors, engineers, government officials, academics and community leaders to discuss lithium technology development and explore ways of maximizing the use of lithium for advanced battery applications in the EV sector.

Controversies associated with the lithium mines in the world

Lithium mining has a long and controversial history, with some areas of the world having been mined for decades.

Large scale lithium operations could lead to a lot of environmental damage. The process involves open pits, and is a very energy intensive one. Some mines even employ explosive applications, and are thus very damaging to the environment. The biggest problem is that the extraction process produces high levels of toxic chemicals, including lithium salts that are left in the soil after the mine has been closed. 

There are two major concerns about lithium mining: first, the land itself and the groundwater aquifers—both are at risk because of the mining operations, and secondly, the impact of brine extraction on local communities and natural environments. The amount of water needed for the mining activities could affect the local groundwater levels, causing problems for local residents, agriculture, and the environment in general.

Are there alternative lithium mining solutions in the US?

With lithium prices hitting new highs, investors and automobile manufacturers began to wonder if there was a new source of lithium in the United States. This question is all about the supply side of lithium. The US is the leading producer of lithium globally, but does it still have access to an adequate supply of the mineral?

There are a lot of alternatives to lithium extraction that have the potential to become even more demanding and environmentally friendly.

Salton Sea- Natural source of abundant Lithium

The Salton Sea is home to one of the largest inland sea lakes in the country, with a widespread surface area. It is fed by a large underground aquifer, and has a natural abundance of lithium, potassium, bromine, and other minerals.

Researchers in the United States are currently looking into developing low-impact ways of extracting lithium from the Salton Sea, but they face two challenges. One, the amount of lithium in the water is quite small, which makes extraction a costly proposition. And two, they need to figure out how to efficiently remove the lithium without negatively impacting the ecosystem or harming people who live near the Salton Sea.

Geothermal power plants-lithium as a by product

Geothermal power plants could be a viable option to source lithium supply as an alternative. The geothermal steam is full of mineral elements with lithium as a major part, which could be extracted for further refinement using specific devices called scrubbers. This type of plant could utilize renewable geothermal energy to produce power with a plenty of lithium that is highly demanded by EV battery manufacturers to meet the domestic lithium supply.

This process has been successfully implemented in other countries and in the United States too. This could be a best alternative to lithium production in comparison to other methods applied worldwide.

Energy transition and Role of Lithium

There’s a great deal of hype around lithium, and much of it is based on lithium’s role in the world’s energy transition. Lithium is one of the chemical elements that the world learned about early on because of its usefulness in powering our technological progress.

Lithium is a critical element in the design of modern batteries. When it comes to battery technology, there’s nothing as vital as lithium, which powers most modern electronic devices. The market for electric cars is growing by leaps and bounds and Lithium is the critical element in making that happen. 

The energy transition is happening fast and there is no time to lose. We need renewable energy to fill in the gaps left by the declining use of coal and gas as our primary sources of electricity generation. We are moving toward a more sustainable future and the use of Lithium is critical to the success of renewable energy systems like solar energy too. 

Scientists and technology enthusiasts say the transition to solar and other sustainable technologies will require major technological breakthroughs.

The future of race to mine lithium and electric vehicle manufacturers

There is no doubt that the lithium-ion battery is the most important component in a new generation of vehicles that will change the way the world moves. With it, electric vehicles (EV) are poised to revolutionize the automotive industry, replacing internal combustion engines (ICE) in both urban and rural environments, providing a cleaner, safer environment and a greener alternative for everyday life. 

The race to develop lithium-ion batteries by lithium mining and other technologies seems to be an ongoing trend for the next few years.  According to a report, the global battery market will be driven by the increasing use of lithium-ion batteries in automotive and consumer electronics sectors, along with growing demands for large capacity batteries.

Tesla plans to triple battery capacity of its upcoming models by the end of this year. That’s a lot of power to cram into a little package. To do this, Tesla is in a race with a couple of other EV makers to develop more powerful lithium ion batteries.  The competition could put pressure on prices, as demand increases with the time. The consequences of all of this could impact a spike in EV sales throughout the country and the United States’ dependence on sources for lithium (lithium mines) becomes more widespread.

Need of Strong Regulatory measures by US Govt. for Lithium Mining 

Lithium is required to power batteries for the increasing number of electric cars being developed by automakers around the world. Currently, China produces 90 percent of the lithium used by the auto industry, but the U.S. Department of Energy believes that the country should start producing more of its own lithium in order to help keep the price down.

There are many issues surrounding how is lithium mined and extracted, particularly those of concern to the environment, such as water pollution and destruction of habitats, so the US Federal Government has to introduce strong regulations with mutual consultation with EV manufacturers to make Lithium mining smoother for the manufacturing of electric vehicles.

Regulated Lithium mining could create jobs in areas where employment is scarce and can be a big boost to the economy.

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