Batteries and the brand new “lithium gold-rush”

Within the mountains of northern Nevada, the gas of the long run lies within the shadow of the previous. Sixteen million years in the past, the realm now referred to as Thacker Cross was the positioning of a large volcanic eruption … and volcanologist Tom Benson has been looking out the world for locations identical to it.

He says an eruption right here hundreds of thousands of years in the past left behind the important thing to unlock the electrical automobile revolution.

It is referred to as lithium, the lightest strong component on that chart most of us solely periodically bear in mind from highschool chemistry. Rechargeable lithium ion batteries are what energy our cell telephones, computer systems, even toothbrushes, and at the moment are the gas for all these electrical automobiles beginning to roll off the meeting line.

Correspondent Ben Tracy requested, “What is the connection between volcanoes and lithium?”

“Just about all lithium comes from volcanoes,” Benson stated.

America at the moment produces solely about 2% of the world’s provide of lithium, a significant ingredient of batteries.

CBS Information

“Within the coming years, when persons are driving their electrical vehicles down the street, there is a good likelihood the lithium in that battery will come from right here?”

“Sure, that is the hope.”

Benson works for Lithium Americas, a mining firm that owns the rights to Thacker Cross, the biggest identified lithium deposit in america. The corporate expects to probably extract 80,000 tons of lithium a yr. That is sufficient to energy about 1,000,000 automobiles.

“It is actually the blood in a battery,” stated Jonathan Evans, president of the corporate. “With out it the batteries will not work.”

With automakers pledging to quickly make most of their automobiles electrical, lithium demand is anticipated to extend as a lot as tenfold within the subsequent decade. Proper now most of it’s mined in Chile and Australia, and virtually all of it’s processed in China.

America has only one lithium producing mine, in southern Nevada, offering lower than 2% of the world’s provide.

The Silver Peak lithium mining operation in southern Nevada. 

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Tracy requested, “Is it an possibility for the U.S. to not be on this subject and to let different international locations provide this?”

“I feel the reply isn’t any,” Evans replied. “We have now a number of opponents on this planet that, if we do not do one thing about it, others are going to be pleased to.”

“And a kind of international locations is China?”


“How far behind are we?”

“Years, a long time.”

Jumpstarting the swap to EVs is essential to President Biden’s plan to chop U.S. greenhouse fuel emissions in half by 2030 to sluggish local weather change. “The way forward for the auto business is electrical,” Mr. Biden stated in August. “There is not any turning again.”

The Division of Power has launched a nationwide blueprint for lithium batteries. It says counting on different international locations creates a “strategic vulnerability” for the U.S. financial system.

Allan Swan, the president of Panasonic Power of North America, stated, “We’re proper in the beginning of this journey, and due to this fact what’s forward of us is so enormous.”

Swan runs the biggest lithium ion battery manufacturing unit on this planet, simply exterior Reno, Nevada. It produces two billion batteries annually. All of them are for only one electrical automobile maker: Tesla.

Lithium batteries produced for Tesla’s electrical vehicles. 

CBS Information

Tracy requested, “Do you guys ever shut down? Does this ever take a break?”

“Nope. by no means cease,” stated Swan. “24/7, 12 months a yr. We do not cease.”

The batteries are made on the Panasonic facet of an enormous facility often called the Tesla Gigafactory, after which robots, buzzing alongside to the theme from the “Tremendous Mario Brothers” online game, drive them to the Tesla facet, the place they’re put contained in the vehicles.

“What can we as a rustic must do, or what do firms must do, to satisfy this new demand?” requested Tracy.

“We do not have a provide chain right here within the U.S.,” stated Swan. “We have now to work laborious at that. If we get that proper, we will rock in America, which shall be actually highly effective.”

“Are we going to see extra battery factories like this everywhere in the nation?”

“Yeah, essentially sure. I imply, it isn’t even touching the underside of the barrel at this level. So, it is a lengthy method to go.”

These factories will want a number of lithium, which is why J.B. Straubel, the CEO of Redwood Supplies, and a former Tesla govt, stated all these lithium batteries should be recycled.

“The sheer variety of batteries and the sheer variety of automobiles, is very large,” he stated. “If there isn’t a scaling forward of time and no answer prepared, it might develop into a giant problem.”

Vans arrive at his Carson Metropolis warehouse on daily basis, loaded with packing containers of previous batteries, from electrical vehicles to energy instruments. His firm is partnering with Ford to assist flip previous batteries into new ones. Ford simply introduced plans to construct two large battery manufacturing vegetation within the U.S.

Lithium batteries awaiting recycling. 

CBS Information

Straubel stated, “I feel recycling the batteries is a should. The fabric is coming at us, and we do not actually have a alternative of ought to we or ought to we not recycle it.”

Lithium is now so precious it is referred to as “white gold.” There’s believed to be billions of {dollars}’ price of it at Thacker Cross alone. And whereas it might be important to a greener future, getting it out of the bottom comes with its personal environmental price.

“The declare that this is able to be a ‘inexperienced mine’ is extraordinarily harmful,” stated Max Wilbert, a part of a bunch of protestors who’ve been tenting out on the Thacker Cross mine website since January. He stated lithium shouldn’t be the silver bullet many imagine it to be, due to the influence of mining on the land and the big quantities of wastewater created by lithium extraction.

Tracy requested, “If we’re making an attempt to maneuver away from fossil fuels, is the environmental influence at a website like this the lesser of two evils?”

“That is a very good query, however I feel the issue is, that is the improper framing,” Wilbert replied. “International warming is a big drawback. However on this try to avoid wasting the planet from local weather change, persons are really believing that we will save the planet by destroying it.”

Lithium Americas admits there shall be environmental impacts, however claims new mining know-how will result in much less harm. The corporate plans to start its operation subsequent yr, probably making a lithium growth city in close by Winnemucca, Nevada.

Evans stated, “For those who imagine in local weather change, in case you are frightened about competitiveness, in case you are frightened about jobs being misplaced, then property like this, growth like this, within the U.S., is critical.”

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Story produced by Chris Laible. Editor: Remington Korper.

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