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  • This is lithium.

  • Pretty soon, were going to need a lot of it.

  • Lithium is a useful metal.

  • It spends its entire existence trying to get rid of its one outer electron but, crucially,

  • this reaction can be both controlled and reversed.

  • That means, properly configured, the metal can discharge energy when needed, take in

  • more energy, and then discharge that energy.

  • Essentially, it can act as a battery.

  • It’s only been a few decades since lithium-ion batteries reached commercial feasibility but,

  • in that time, they have become the power source of choice for portable electronics thanks

  • to their perfect blend of safety and lightness.

  • However, the latest major tech boom, the latest infatuation of Silicon Valley and Wall Street

  • alike, is centered around the largest consumer electronics product to date: electric vehicles.

  • And pretty soon, were going to need a lot of them.

  • The UK, for example, has committed to banning internal combustion car sales by 2030.

  • To replace its 31.5 million vehicles, about 236,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate are

  • needed.

  • To produce 236,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate, every lithium mine in the world

  • would have to devote its output to this one use for nine months, and there are a whole

  • lot more countries, a whole lot more lithium applications, and a whole lot more growth

  • in the forecast.

  • While the industry and its issues may be complex, the way in which battery-grade lithium is

  • produced is not.

  • Four countries dominate the industryArgentina, Chile, Australia, and China combined account

  • for 92% of the globe’s production.

  • The metal is extracted from the ground at massive sites like the Greenbushes mine in

  • Western Australia, which is the world’s largest hard-rock lithium mine.

  • The site was selected due to the abundance of spodumene in the area, which is a mineral

  • that contains large concentrations of lithium.

  • Once the raw material is extracted from the ground, it’s transported two and a half

  • hours north to the Kwinana Lithium Plant near Perth—a facility majority owned and operated

  • by a Chinese company, Tianqi Lithium, which is responsible for almost half of the world’s

  • production of the metal.

  • Once refined, lithium hydroxide and other compounds are sold to battery manufacturers,

  • which in about three quarters of cases means one of three companiesLG Chem, CATL, or

  • Panasonic.

  • The problem, however, is the world’s solution.

  • In addition to the UK, Iceland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden,

  • Israel, Singapore, and South Korea have each committed to banning the sale of internal

  • combustion passenger vehicles within the next decade.

  • Adding up their annual passenger vehicle sales numbers from 2019, that means the absolute

  • base-case demand for EVs a decade from now will be 9.5 million per year.

  • Just to reach that, EV production would have to quintuple, but even the most conservative

  • forecasters don’t dare tread anywhere close to a number as low as 9.5 million in 2032.

  • The market is waking up to what this means for lithium demand.

  • Across 2021, Seaborne lithium prices rose from around $8,000 per metric ton to over

  • $30,000—a 400% rise in a mere twelve monthsand lithium is hardly the only crucial metal for

  • lithium-ion battery productionit’s just the one in the name.

  • Cobalt and nickel are also critical to most commercially-available versions of these batteries,

  • and the situation is hardly different with them.

  • Cobalt prices doubled across 2021, while nickel rose to its highest price in a decade.

  • So, the world needs a lot more metals, but right now, it’s hard to believe the world’s

  • going to get them.

  • The biggest hurdle the industry faces is best exemplified here: Thacker Pass, Nevada.

  • Thacker Pass is located in one of the most sparsely populated areas of the country.

  • It’s an half hour’s drive to the nearest store, an hour to the nearest supermarket,

  • and three to the nearest Starbucks.

  • The few roads that exist in the area are lucky to see a few cars an hour, travelling to and

  • from the various remote farms, ranches, and communities dotting northern Nevada.

  • That could soon change, though.

  • 250 miles or 400 kilometers to the south is the Silver Peak Lithium Mine.

  • This is the nation’s only currently operating major lithium mine, despite the fact that

  • the US is one of the largest EV markets and home to the world’s largest EV manufacturer.

  • China, also a major EV market home to major EV manufacturers, has made significant headway

  • in building up its domestic lithium production capacity and the country’s companies also

  • have significant presences at the world’s other major lithium production sites.

  • This has come to concern those in charge in the US.

  • Therefore, sights are set on Thacker Passhome to the USlargest lithium deposit.

  • This site could singlehandedly propel the US into the ranks of major lithium producers,

  • but getting a mine up and running there has proveddifficult.

  • The way in which major lithium deposits are distributed across the world is rather cruel.

  • Overwhelmingly, theyre located in arid regions with little water availability, like

  • Nevada.

  • Thacker Pass receives less than 10 inches or 25 centimeters of rain a year.

  • However, the extraction and processing of lithium requires enormous quantities of water.

  • It’s expected that operations at the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine would require 3,224

  • gallons or 12,204 liters of water per minuteroughly equivalent to the contents of a backyard,

  • above-ground pool.

  • That water would be used to pump into the ground as part of the extraction process,

  • during refinement, and to conduct necessary dust control at the site.

  • To get this water the mine would have to pump it out of the ground using wells, but every

  • acre-foot of water in the area is strictly allocated, given the degree of scarcity.

  • So the mine has to buy up water rights from others in order to gain the legal right to

  • use it.

  • What that means, however, is that there’s a direct trade off between one use and another,

  • and in this case, the other use is predominantly ranching and farmingtwo key tenants to

  • the local economy.

  • In addition, there’s a chance the project could do far more to further the inaccessibility

  • of water in northern Nevada.

  • The US Bureau of Land Management’s Environmental Impact Study for the project found that it

  • presented the distinct possibility of leaking unacceptable levels of arsenic into the area’s

  • groundwater table which could take the entire region’s water supply offline for hundreds

  • of years.

  • In an area where the availability of water undergirds almost all economic activity, that

  • has people seriously concerned.

  • The issues only compound on top of that.

  • As Thacker Pass is, of course, a mountain pass, it acts as a wildlife corridor between

  • the Double-H and Montana mountainstwo biodiversity hotspots.

  • Therefore, the environmental impact study found the project likely to destroy or deteriorate

  • thousands of acres of habitat used by the pronghorn antelope, sage grouse, golden eagle,

  • and other unique species.

  • For interrelated reasons, the project also has a number of local indigenous tribes concernedthe

  • most vocal of which is the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe.

  • They say that during the era of American soldiers rounding up and shipping indigenous people

  • off to reservations, two of the tribe’s families hid out in the shelter Thacker Pass

  • providedso they directly attribute the continued existence of their tribe to the

  • area.

  • In addition, they consider the pass a sacred site, in part because of a historic massacre

  • they say occurred there.

  • This assertion, however, was directly challenged in a court case related to the mine project,

  • and the judge rejected the claim citing a lack of evidence.

  • To add to their opposition, the tribe put forward evidence linking the development of

  • similar resource-extraction projects, which are predominately staffed by men, to increases

  • in the rape and murder of indigenous women in nearby areas.

  • Even just looking at these few headline issues, it becomes clear that the Thacker Pass lithium

  • mine project is mired in a nearly insurmountable web of controversy and conflict, and it’s

  • hardly alone in that status.

  • Much of the evidence opponents to the Thacker Pass mine have put forward is based on real-world

  • experiences in the lithium trianglethe nexus between Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia

  • that hosts some of the world’s most productive lithium production facilities.

  • An area in a similar situation—a remote, arid landscape punctuated by small communities

  • home to a historically oppressed indigenous populationthe lithium triangle has seen

  • an economic boon, but it’s come at the cost of environmental and cultural devastation.

  • Just as the issues are not confined to one geography, theyre not even confined to

  • lithium alone.

  • Some 70% of the world’s cobalt, a crucial component to current battery tech, comes from

  • the Democratic Republic of the Congothe 8th poorest country in the world, according

  • to World Bank figures.

  • While a majority of the cobalt mining is conducted by large mining companies with often shaky

  • safety and human rights records, a concerningly large minority is accomplished through what’s

  • referred to asartisanalmining—a term defining the illegal, informal practice

  • of individuals mining cobalt by themselves and selling it on to shady middlemen.

  • The complete lack of safety standards or regulations in the sector means child labor and deadly

  • mine collapses are rampant.

  • For those that aren’t directly injured or killed on the job, long-term exposure to cobalt

  • mines has been linked to significant health effects later in life, and fatal birth defects

  • for children in the region.

  • Altogether, there’s almost no such thing as ethical cobalt.

  • There’s also almost no such thing as green lithium.

  • There’s little appetite anywhere to increasing lithium mining in the places where it’s

  • accessible, and little progress has been made in the DRC in making cobalt mining less socially

  • disastrous.

  • As demand for EVs and their batteries increases, getting more cobalt and lithium will be incredibly

  • difficult.

  • However, on top of that, getting more cobalt and lithium that’s more ethical and green,

  • or even as ethical and green, will be next to impossible.

  • But to decarbonize driving, solutions must be found.

  • One option, rather than finding more raw materials, is to need less of them.

  • Of course, the way to do that is by making batteries better.

  • The most promising short-term innovation that could fulfill that mission is solid state

  • batteries.

  • Whereas traditional EV batteries have a liquidy, viscous lithium-based electrolyte, solid state

  • batteries rather use a solid, metal composition as their ion transport mechanism.

  • This switch has a number of benefits including a higher safety profile that reduces the risk

  • of fire, and therefore reduces the need for expensive safety features.

  • Solid state batteries can also be made without cobalt or nickel, which eliminates two problematic

  • and costly necessities in current battery tech.

  • Most significant, however, is solid state batterieshigher energy density.

  • Traditional lithium ion compositions used in EV battery packs store about 114 watt-hours

  • of energy per pound, or 250 per kilogram.

  • That means one pound of battery could move a Tesla Model 3, for example, 0.4 miles, or

  • 1 kilogram 1.3 kilometers.

  • Meanwhile, it’s expected that solid state batteries will be able to store between 175

  • and 225 watt-hours per pound or 400 to 500 per kilogramessentially doubling battery

  • density.

  • That means Tesla could halve the weight of their half-ton battery pack and not only keep

  • range the same, but increase it as the car would no longer need to carry the rest of

  • the weight of the battery pack.

  • On top of all those benefits, expert believe that, at scale, production costs of solid

  • state batteries could be even less than the cheapest current lithium-ion batteries.

  • However, the issue is getting to that scale.

  • Battery production needs to occur at absolutely massive quantities to reach cost competitivenessan

  • assertion backed up by the industry’s current effective triopoly.

  • The process of working down this cost curve is long as there are few applications where

  • battery weight matters as much as with EVs, and EVs won’t switch to solid state batteries

  • until their cost is competitive, but their cost will only become competitive when the

  • industry reaches a production capacity that only EVs can provide.

  • So, the industry has to wait for some level of scale to occur through niche solid state

  • battery applications in medical devices, race cars, and fighter jets; then wait for consumer

  • electronics to realize the weight savings or battery life benefits the innovation could

  • provide; then wait for the highest-end EVs to incorporate the technology in order to

  • offer super-long ranges as a luxury; before solid-state batteries can finally reach a

  • cost that would allow them to permeate into what will by then be the large segment of

  • everyday EVs.

  • Most estimates place that enticing end-goal more than a decade away.

  • Even if the solid-state battery transition reaches fruition earlier, the world will still

  • need a whole lot more lithium.

  • Far from the potential environmental disaster at Thacker Pass is an existing environmental

  • disasterthe Salton Sea.

  • A century ago, Colorado River floodwaters breached through an irrigation canal and accumulated,

  • over years, in the Imperial Valley’s geographic low-point 236 feet or 72 meters below sea

  • level.

  • That massive puddle still exists today, but some of the water has slowly evaporated through

  • time, leaving an ever saltier, dirtier accumulation of water.

  • Thousands more feet below, however, are a number of underground volcanoes that superheat

  • water to hundreds of degrees.

  • If one brings that water to the surface, the pressure change leads to it transforming into

  • steam and steam, of course, is what most power plants use to drive turbines.

  • Traditional power plants use coal or natural gas to heat water up into steam, but this

  • steam is created by the earthmeaning its carbon-free.

  • That’s why Berkshire Hathaway Energy has built 10 geothermal energy plants in the area,

  • but, crucially, this superheated water is filled with something else: lithium.

  • Therefore, these geothermal plants are planning on adding an extra step in their process to

  • extract lithium from the briny steam they use.

  • Now, there are certainly significant technological hurdles that stand between now and a future

  • of commercially-competitive lithium production at the Salton Sea, especially as the metal

  • only represents a tiny portion of the slurry of materials found in the water, but the lithium

  • is there.

  • Berkshire Hathaway Energy, as the largest existing energy company working around the

  • Salton Sea, is leading the charge thanks in part to a sizable federal grant, and expects

  • to have its demonstration facility up and running later in 2022.

  • A number of other competitors have already started developing their lithium-extraction

  • plays around the Salton Sea, meaning America’s first lithium boom-town might already be a

  • foregone conclusion.

  • These are the kind of solutions needed as the world transitions to electric mobility.

  • Electric vehicles, due to their reliance on batteries, are just dirtier than internal

  • combustion vehicles to produce.

  • That being said, the vast majority of emissions from cars, including from EVs themselves,

  • come not from the production of vehicles but from driving them.

  • The science on the issue is soundelectric vehicles, from production to use to scrapping,

  • are responsible for about 75% less emissions than their internal combustion counterparts,

  • even on current, fossil-fuel based electric grids.

  • Anyone who argues the opposite is either misinformed or attempting to disinform, and that gap will

  • only widen as grids continue to decarbonize.

  • However, there can be better alternatives to better alternatives.

  • In the coming lithium gold-rush, corners can and likely will be cut.

  • The question the world will have to grapple with is whether it’s worth destroying pristine

  • environments like Thacker Pass in the name of environmentalismwhether slowing the

  • issue on a global level is worth accelerating it on a local level.

  • Then, when the answer inevitably gravitates towards yes, the world will have to grapple

  • with who must confront that local devastation.

  • If the answer continues to be to place the burden on the world’s most vulnerable, then

  • even if the steady march of climate change is curbed, will the world have truly succeeded