Lithium Mining in the USA Could See High Growth Potential
In May of 2018, the US Department of Interior published a list of 35 minerals that are "critical to the economic and national security of the USA." Publishing this list was the 1st step in a multi-agency strategy in order to implement Trump's initiative to stop our dependence on foreign materials, and mine / produce our own.
The full list - along with some of their uses are as follows:
Aluminum (bauxite) - used in almost all sectors of the economy
Antimony - used in batteries and flame retardants
Arsenic - used in lumber preservatives - pesticides - and semiconductors
Barite - used in cement and petroleum industries
Beryllium - used as an alloying agent in the aerospace and defense industries
Bismuth - used in medical and atomic research
Cesium - used in research and development
Chromium - used primarily in stainless steel and other alloys
Cobalt - used in rechargeable batteries and superalloys
Fluorspar - used in the manufacture of aluminum - gasoline - and uranium fuel
Gallium - used for integrated circuits and optical devices like LEDs
Germanium - used for fiber optics and night vision applications
Graphite (natural) - used for lubricants - batteries - and fuel cells
Hafnium - used for nuclear control rods - alloys - and high-temperature ceramics
Helium - used for MRIs - lifting agent - and research
Indium - mostly used in LCD screens
Lithium - used primarily for batteries
Magnesium - used in furnace linings for manufacturing steel and ceramics
Manganese - used in steel making
Niobium - used mostly in steel alloys
Platinum group metals - used for catalytic agents
Potash - primarily used as a fertilizer
Rare earth elements group - primarily used in batteries and electronics
Rhenium - used for lead-free gasoline and superalloys
Rubidium - used for research and development in electronics
Scandium - used for alloys and fuel cells
Strontium - used for pyrotechnics and ceramic magnets
Tantalum - used in electronic components - mostly capacitors
Tellurium - used in steelmaking and solar cells
Tin - used as protective coatings and alloys for steel
Titanium - overwhelmingly used as a white pigment or metal alloys
Tungsten - primarily used to make wear-resistant metals
Uranium - mostly used for nuclear fuel
Vanadium - primarily used for titanium alloys
Zirconium - used in the high-temperature ceramics industries
The Department of Interior deemed these minerals as "critical" for a number of reasons, mainly within US industry and military uses. Lithium, for instance, is the primary ingredient in most modern day smartphone batteries and would be a game changer if the US could create its own supply.
Currently, there is only one active commercial lithium mine in North America: a brine mine in Nevada owned by Albemarle which was also the first Lithium mine founded in globally. Albemarle now has other Lithium mines as well in Chile and a JV in Australia with China which is an open pit hard-rock mining operation. At one point, the US controlled the entire industry now only controls less than 5% of the worldwide production. Chile and Australia currently make up over half the worldwide production.
Mining lithium via underground brine thus far has proven to be a cheaper process than from hard rock. This caused Lithium mines in North Carolina to shut down as their processes proved to be inefficient compared to others. Other countries (e.g. Chile) have a huge advantage over other countries in that their brine is more mineral rich. They also have a much better climate and higher altitude which is easier on machinery and workers than other parts of the world. Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile is the 2nd largest producer of Lithium globally and is located in Chile, it also has the lowest cost to produce Lithium worldwide.
Lithium’s surge in demand has made a worldwide “white gold rush” with many amateur and mining operations testing and drilling the viability of mining lithium in the US. A number of lithium claims have been staked in Nevada in an existing brine operation. Other operations are focusing on geothermal brine and hard-rock mining in California and North Carolina. Lithium Americas is looking into using a new technology to extract lithium from hectorite clay in Nevada as well.
We still don’t know how exactly the Trump administration is going to go about reducing US dependence on Lithium and other minerals but one thing that is clear is that if they want it bad enough it’s going to happen.