The US could enter the lithium market in a very big way. At least, that’s what some experts are claiming. The global demand for lithium is on the rise, especially in the US. This should come as no surprise, as lithium-ion batteries are essential to electric vehicles and energy storage. Still, the question remains: is the US capable of breaking its reliance on lithium imports from Argentina, Chile, Russia, and China?
Lithium Production Needs to Increase
Because of the increased demand for electric vehicles, lithium extraction technology has seen heavy investment. These millions aren’t just coming from the likes of General Motors either, but the US Energy Department.
Right now, much of the focus is on direct lithium extraction (DLE). These technologies aim to extract lithium from brine using filters, membranes, ceramic beads, and other “micro-level” solutions. While such methods are successful, it’s unclear whether they can be scaled up for commercial production.
DLE technology necessitates vast amounts of potable water and electricity. Before the US could boost lithium production, we would need a clear plan to provide ample amounts of both. Since these resources are not particularly abundant, it also gives detractors more ammo to criticize lithium investment.
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Looking to Geothermal Sources
According to this report, geothermal technologies are about to unlock large amounts of lithium hidden in naturally occurring hot brines. These are essentially concentrated saline solutions that circulate through super heated rock in places like San Diego’s Salton Sea. In doing so, the solutions pick up many of the elements contained within the rock, including lithium.
The previously-mentioned issue of water supply is clearly addressed through this method. After all, geothermal power plants use heat from the earth to generate a constant supply of steam. This allows them to run the turbines necessary to produce electricity.
The report also stated that if current tests are successful, the 11 existing geothermal plants along the Salton Sea could produce enough lithium metal to meet US demand 10 times over.
Science Paving the Way to the Lithium Market
Cypress Development Corp recently announced results from its Lithium Extraction Pilot Plant in Amargosa Valley, Nevada. It stated that the lithium extracted via the ion exchange in the recovery area boasts superior separation efficiencies. At the same time, major cations exceeded 98%. Results have also identified preliminary extraction rates of between 83% and 85% within the washed tails.
Meanwhile, lithium extractions performed with the Lionex process are clocking in at 98%. Perhaps most importantly, the report stated that overall impurity removal exceeded 99%. US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm remarked at an energy conference last month that DLE technology was a “game-changer” and a “great opportunity” for the United States.
This should come as no surprise to energy insiders. Recently, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. was given a US $15 million grant by the US Energy Dept. to test DLE technology. Again, the site of the tests will be California’s Salton Sea.
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Scoping Study in North America
Just 700 km from CentrePort Canada, Snow Lake Lithium is creating the world’s first all-electric, fully renewable lithium mine. Meanwhile, Snow Lake Resources Ltd. has commissioned a scoping study to assess the proposed creation of a Lithium Hydroxide Plant in South Manitoba. The company called the study “a strategically important step” toward creating North America’s first fully renewable, fully-electric, and fully integrated lithium processing operation.
Starting this month, the study will accelerate the company towards commercialized lithium production. It’s hoped the research will identify the technologies, innovations, skills, and potential partners required to create a world-class lithium hydroxide plant in Manitoba .
The creation of a lithium hydroxide plant would greatly impact North American industry. Specifically, it would enable the integration of a domestic supply of this critical resource. Electric car companies could improve output and potentially even lower prices.
Waiting for the Future
Snow Lake Lithium currently has 11.1 million metric tons of inferred resources at 1% Li2O. The mine has further plans to expand its resources based on the current active drilling campaign.
The scoping study mentioned above will commence in April 2022 and should complete by Spring 2023. Meanwhile, Snow Lake Lithium will continue its engineering evaluation and drilling program across its Thompson Brothers Lithium Project site. Company leaders expect that the mine will transition to commercial production in late 2024.
Only time will tell if the US and its northern neighbor can capitalize on this massive opportunity. Until we experience a breakthrough, the entry into the global Lithium Market remains a matter of “baby steps.”
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