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North Carolina’s Dormant Lithium Industry Is Suddenly Hot Again

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Global demand for batteries has spiked in recent years thanks to climate initiatives that aim to electrify transportation and energy systems. This need, in turn, has pushed up demand for lithium used in lithium-ion batteries. A 2022 analysis by McKinsey & Co. estimates that the entire battery chain could grow by more than 30% a year from 2022 to 2030, when it is expected to push past $400 billion and 4.7 terawatt hours worldwide.

The need for the material is so great that a company in North Carolina is re-opening a mine that has been dormant since the 1980s to retrieve the metal inside. The company, Charlotte-based Albemarle Corporation, is the world’s largest lithium producer. In September, Albemarle got a $90 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to help support the domestic mining and lithium production expansion for the nation’s battery supply chain.

Photo Courtesy Albemarle Corporation

Part of that work includes reopening the dormant lithium mine in Kings Mountain, about 30 miles west of Charlotte.

The money will be used to purchase a fleet of mining equipment so that Albemarle Corp. can extract the soft metal in rocks and subsurface fluids.

The metal is a common component in batteries used to power electric vehicles (EVs) and provide electricity storage. A DoD press release pointed to the agreement with Albemarle as securing “supply chains for minerals and materials critical to the DoD and the commercial sector.” North Carolina has become a major focus of lithium production because of its vast metal reserves.

According to a Sept. 12, 2023, press release announcing the Defense Department investment, the planned Kings Mountain mine consists of ”one of the few known hard rock lithium deposits” in the country. The site is expected to provide sufficient material for 50 kt LCE (lithium carbonate equivalent) of conversion capacity and support the initial production of about 1.2 million EVs a year.

Photo Courtesy Albemarle Corporation

“As one of the only U.S.-based lithium companies to carry out lithium extraction, processing, and novel lithium battery material research in the United States, Albemarle is uniquely positioned to help power the clean energy revolution,” Eric Norris, Albemarle president of energy storage, said in a statement. “Lithium is an essential ingredient in our sustainable energy future. Demand is expected to increase significantly, and it is imperative to secure our nation’s supply of this critical resource.”

Albemarle estimates that the Kings Mountain mine will become operational as early as late 2026.

The company said it’s implementing “IRMA-Ready” standards at the facility, which it calls an “operational playbook” for mine sites in the exploration phase. Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) standards focus on ecological stewardship and community engagement.

In addition to its North Carolina mine, Albemarle has sites in Australia, Chile, and Nevada. As of late November, the Kings Mountain mining project was in the development phase, which includes environmental studies. The next phase will be filing local and state permits. 

Photo Courtesy Albemarle Corporation 

Elsewhere in North Carolina, U.S. Senator Thom Tillis has shown his support for responsible leadership on lithium: “We’re sitting on top of the largest single deposit of hydrate lithium in North America,” Tillis said about Gaston County, later adding, “We have to lead by example, and if we do we will accelerate our self-dependence.”

Janet Yellen, U.S. Treasury Secretary, recently traveled to the state to visit Livent, a lithium hydroxide processing company that gets its supply from Canada and Argentina. As The New York Times reported, Livent expanded its plant in Bessemer City, N.C., and increased its manufacturing capacity there by 50% following the passage of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which includes tax incentives for U.S.-made EVs.

Despite pushback from environmental groups who oppose the mining projects, Yellen defended lithium investments in North Carolina and elsewhere. Among other things, she said such investments could bring more energy security to the U.S. while also lowering energy costs and bringing higher wages to low-income communities.

“Key supply chains in areas like clean energy are over-concentrated in China, in part due to unfair nonmarket practices over decades,” Yellen said during her North Carolina tour. “With massive increases in domestic manufacturing capacity, our country will become less dependent on other countries for the inputs we need, and we will make great strides toward energy security.”


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