How the U.S. fell way behind in lithium, ‘white gold’ for EVs

The United States has a lithium supply problem. Nearly every major automaker has announced a transition to electric vehicles, Tesla delivered nearly a million cars in 2021, and a handful of new EV companies like Rivian and Lucid are rolling new models off the line.

To power all these electric vehicles, we’re going to need batteries, lots of them.

The growth of electric vehicles will be responsible for more than 90% of lithium demand by 2030, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. But lithium is also in our phones, computers, ceramics, lubricants, pharmaceuticals, and is essential for solar and wind energy storage.

“It’s like the blood in your body,” said Lithium Americas CEO Jon Evans, “It’s the chemistry behind how lithium-ion batteries work. It’s still the common denominator in all battery technologies, even what we’re looking at now for the next generation of next-generation batteries. So it’s really a critical element.”

This vital mineral in rechargeable batteries has earned the name “white gold” and the rush is on.

The price of lithium is skyrocketing, up 280% since January 2021, and establishing a domestic supply of lithium has become the modern version of oil security. But today, the US is far behind, with only 1% of global lithium mined and processed in the US, according to the US Geological Survey.

More than 80% of the world’s raw lithium is mined in Australia, Chile and China. And China controls more than half of the world’s lithium processing and refining and has three-quarters of the world’s lithium-ion battery megafactories, according to the International Energy Agency.

But until the 1990s, the US was the leader in lithium production.

“The lithium industry started in the US and was on a roll for 50 years,” said Erick Neuman, international business manager for Swenson Technology. “We have a lot. The challenge is, can we produce what we need at a cheap and competitive price? That’s tough.”

Lithium is not a rare element. The United States has nearly 8 million metric tons in reserve, putting it in the top five countries in the world, according to the USGS.

But there is only one working lithium mine in the US, Albemarle’s Silver Peak in Nevada.

Last June, the administration released a plan to boost domestic lithium production and refining, as well as battery manufacturing, and set a national electric vehicle sales goal of 50% by 2030.

There are several domestic lithium projects underway in Nevada, North Carolina, California and Arkansas, among other places.

A Lithium Americas worker processes lithium at the company’s R&D lab in Reno, Nevada.

Controlled Thermal Resources is developing a lithium project at the Salton Sea in California, which will extract lithium from brine pumped through geothermal power plants in the area. The Salton Sea was once a hot tourist destination, but has become one of the worst public health and environmental crises in modern history, as drier conditions caused much of the lake to dry up. The state of California is trying to transform the area, calling it “Lithium Valley” and hopes to generate the revenue needed to revive the area.

Last summer, GM announced a multibillion-dollar investment in Controlled Thermal Resources and secured the first rights to buy domestically produced lithium for its electric vehicles.

Piedmont Lithium wants to revive a former lithium mining area in North Carolina, near Charlotte. Piedmont signed an agreement in 2020 to supply Tesla with lithium from its deposits there, but the project has suffered delays due to permitting.

Lithium Americas plans an open pit mine at Thacker Pass, which is located inside an extinct supervolcano about 200 miles north of Reno, Nevada, and is one of the largest lithium reserves in the US. The site is It will be in charge of both the extraction and refinement of lithium and is in the final phase of permitting.

But no one wants a mine in their backyard, and Thacker Pass and other projects have been stalled by lawsuits and opposition from environmentalists, permit delays and opposition from Native American tribes in the area.

Watch the video to learn more and get an inside look at some of the domestic lithium projects in the works.


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