Lithium leads critical minerals boom: Cipher tracker

But declining prices are causing delays

Washington D.C. Correspondent
An illustration showing a map of a region in North Carolina where there is a proposed lithium mine and someone holding up a rock containing lithium.
A rock containing lithium and a map of the tin-spodumene belt of the Carolinas, showing the site of Piedmont Lithium's planned lithium processing site in North Carolina. Illustration by Nadya Nickels, map shared by Piedmont Lithium, original photos by Amena H. Saiyid.

BESSEMER CITY, NORTH CAROLINA — Beneath a lush green forest less than an hour outside Charlotte lies a stretch of rocky ore nearly twice the size of Central Park riddled with the mineral lithium, a key ingredient in electric cars and energy storage.

The lithium here in Gaston County is poised to be mined and processed by the company Piedmont Lithium. The project is one of several new critical mineral processing sites set to benefit from new U.S. laws subsidizing a range of clean energy infrastructure.

If completed, this site would annually produce 30,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide, enough to supply 600,000 electric vehicle batteries per year. Right now, nearly all refined lithium comes from China.

With U.S. demand for lithium expected to surge, the project is “highly strategic” not just for North Carolina but for the entire United States, Erin Sanders, the company’s vice president for corporate communications and investor relations, told Cipher.

Lithium today accounts for about two thirds of the more than 30 critical mineral processing facilities planned, operating or under construction across the country, according to new data from Cipher’s Cleantech Tracker. The Tracker analyzes data from a larger project led by the Rhodium Group, a research firm, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research.

However, a 75% slump in global lithium prices in 2023 along with a slowdown in electric vehicle sales in China compared with the prior year is prompting construction delays at some of these processing sites, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest outlook on critical minerals.

Piedmont Lithium told Cipher it is pushing back the starting dates for its planned facilities here in North Carolina and Tennessee. The company says it is “not giving guidance on a timeline currently,” and is looking to potentially start the local rezoning process in 2025. What’s more, news reports indicate another mining company, Albemarle Corporation, is planning to postpone construction on its planned South Carolina facility.

“We continue to focus on building a more resilient domestic supply chain,” a representative for Albemarle told Cipher via email. “The investments economics need to align. Right now, given current pricing, they are not there. That’s not just an Albemarle position – that’s an industry reality.”

Investing in ‘white gold’

Dating back to the 1950s, this region in southcentral North Carolina was a major source of lithium for the United States and rest of the world. But by the 1980s, mining companies shuttered their operations as it became cheaper to get the metal overseas.

That tide might be turning with the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding billions of dollars’ worth of tax credits, grants and more to tackle climate change and boost domestic manufacturing.

Piedmont’s project in Gaston County is one of three recently announced lithium projects in a 20-mile radius and within the region known as the Tin-Spodumene belt of the Carolinas, a 24.5-mile-long geologic zone containing lithium-rich rocks.

Companies have invested about $9.1 billion in U.S. lithium processing projects since early 2021, according to Cipher’s Tracker. That’s about two thirds of the total amount invested into critical mineral processing facilities in the U.S. in that time. Investments range from $4 million for American Battery Technology’s currently operational facility in Nevada to Albemarle’s planned, and now deferred, $1.3 billion project in South Carolina.

The many stages of making battery ready lithium.

The many stages of making battery ready lithium: Excavating rock, crushing it to powder and finally processing it as lithium hydroxide. Photo taken by Amena Saiyid at Piedmont Lithum’s exploration office in North Carolina in May 2024.

Lithium, often known as white gold due to its market value and silvery white color, can either be extracted from a brine solution, like the company Lithium Americas is planning in Nevada, or mined from a hard rock deposit known as spodumene, as Piedmont Lithium plans in North Carolina. Before these ores can be used to make battery components, they must be “processed,” or refined into a chemical in the form of lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, according to Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy.

Cipher’s tracker depicts facilities that process lithium and other critical minerals, not mining sites. Our map is based on projects eligible for IRA tax credits, and while processing facilities are eligible for IRA tax credits, mining sites are not. That said, many processing facilities are or will be located next to mines once completed, so some overlap is likely.

The Biden administration is complementing the carrots in the IRA and infrastructure law with sticks to try to make U.S. products more competitive with those from China, including new tariffs on Chinese goods like lithium batteries and electric vehicles.

“A lot of people don’t realize that there are metals we produce today that we can’t refine, and they’re still sent to China,” Brad Crabtree, assistant secretary for the U.S. Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, said at the CERAWeek energy summit by S&P Global in Houston in March.

Last year, the U.S. processed 0.6% of the world’s lithium, compared with China, which processed 65% of the world’s lithium. By 2030, the U.S.’s share is expected to grow nearly sevenfold to 4%, while China’s will dip slightly to 57%, according to IEA data shared with Cipher.

Some U.S. companies have already made moves to buy lithium produced in North America after facing acute supply chain shortages following the Covid pandemic. General Motors has a deal with Lithium Americas to buy processed lithium from its still unbuilt Nevada plant and Tesla is building a facility in Texas where it plans to process lithium hydroxide from spodumene concentrate produced by Piedmont in Quebec, Canada.

Environmental questions

Like all energy infrastructure, critical mineral mining and processing projects are raising local ire over environmental impacts. The highest profile example is the Thacker Pass project in Nevada seeking to tap into what’s considered “the largest proven reserves” of lithium in North America, said Tim Crowley, Lithium Americas’ vice president for government and external affairs.

The project, which received a $2.26 billion loan guarantee from the Energy Department, had faced a lawsuit (now dismissed) from Native American Tribes over concerns about its proximity to groundwater supplies and sacred grounds.

Lithium Americas plans to start processing the mineral in 2027, Crowley said.

John Hadder, executive director of the Nevada-based environmental nonprofit Great Basin Resource Watch, which was involved in the litigation, remains skeptical of the Biden administration’s efforts to address the impacts of mining, which can be “an enormously destructive process” no matter how you slice it, he said.

A sign opposing Piedmont Lithium's open pit mine sits on the property of Gaston County resident Warren Snowdon. IN the distance you can see the treeline where Piedmont Lithium plans to dig its mine pits.

This sign sits on the family farm belonging to Gaston County resident Warren Snowdon. Beyond the treeline is where Piedmont Lithium is planning to build its mines. Photo by Warren Snowdon.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina a lone picket sign displays a red line crossing through the words “Gaston County pit mine” along the highway leading to the Piedmont Lithium site. Nearby residents are concerned arsenic released through lithium mining could contaminate local well water, said Warren Snowdon, whose family farm is less than 800 feet away from the proposed pit site. Snowdon is among the dozens opposing the project through a group called Stop Piedmont Lithium.

“There’s no question our community will pay a heavy price” if the county allows open pit mining in an area with a shallow water table fed by streams, Snowdon said. “Surely, there are other ways to mine lithium that are truly green,” he added.

Arsenic is naturally occurring in the rock, soil and water of the region, Sanders from Piedmont notes. The company has “conducted extensive testing related to water quality” and does not expect “to materially change the composition of surface or groundwater in our area of operations,” she added.

North Carolina has granted Piedmont Lithium its required mining permits, but the company still needs air and water quality permits. The company’s plans to seek county approval have taken a back seat as it seeks funding amid cratering lithium prices.

“Piedmont is currently focused on potential partnerships, the project funding strategy, and additional permitting activities during the downturn in this historically cyclical lithium market,” Sanders said.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to specify that the Clean Investment Monitor is a joint project of Rhodium Group and MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research. It has also been updated with a quote from Piedmont Lithium and to reflect that it is seeking funding ahead of pursuing local re-zoning for its North Carolina project.