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Encore: High demand for electric vehicles send lithium mines into overdrive


Lithium is a key component of electric vehicle batteries, and the world needs a lot more of it to reduce fossil fuel use and avoid climate catastrophe. The obvious but environmentally problematic answer - build mines. Turns out new mines aren't the only way to get more out of a hot commodity. Here's NPR's Camila Domonoske.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Halfway between Reno and Las Vegas, there's a dry lake bed over the bones of an ancient volcano. Down a gravel road and past a security checkpoint stretch a series of Caribbean-blue ponds. They're filled with brine, a mixture of water and salt and lithium.

JOLIAN ORTIZ: This is one of the first pumps where brine comes in and gets pumped into here. This is where the process starts.

DOMONOSKE: Jolian Ortiz is leading journalists on a tour of Silver Peak lithium mine. A century ago, this was home to a traditional old-school silver mine, with men tunneling into the hills for ore. But today, it's probably not what you're picturing when you think of a mine. There's no giant pit, no dark tunnels, just these pools of brine pumped up from underground to a series of ponds. It's quiet. In fact, it's not the easiest scene to capture for audio.

Just sitting underneath this very intense sun, and the water is evaporating.

For 50 years, workers here have used the power of the sun to concentrate the lithium inside this brine. It wasn't a high-profile mine because lithium wasn't a high-profile mineral. It went to glassmaking or bipolar medication or industrial lubricants. But lithium particles can do a pretty cool trick. They can move back and forth between the positive and negative end of a battery, releasing and storing energy as they go over and over again. That's what makes a lithium ion battery work, and those batteries are crucial for the fight against climate change. All that means this old mine has new energy.


DOMONOSKE: In the past year, lithium has tripled in value. Battery manufacturers are desperate for more of it. So miners here are pumping more brine and getting more lithium out of every drop. All told, Silver Peak is doubling production. That still doesn't make it a huge mine, as these things go. Just here in Nevada, there are proposed lithium mines that would be much larger. But one of those mines threatens a rare wildflower. Another has prompted intense local opposition. Silver Peak doesn't have those controversies. It's a lot easier to boost production at a mine that already exists than to start a new one. Of course, it still can't happen overnight. It can take up to two years for a molecule of lithium to make it from that first pond to the packaging plant.

BRAD EARHART: We pump the brine off of the last pond out there. It goes into a couple of holding tanks.

DOMONOSKE: That's Brad Earhart, the head of maintenance at the mine. Inside an old mill from back when this was a silver mine, they take that brine and add a chemical that reacts with the lithium to make a white powdery substance. They dry that out and blow it into giant white bags. Each weighs one ton.


DOMONOSKE: This is the stuff that battery makers are so desperate to buy.

If I tasted it, would it have a taste? I'm not going to taste it.

EARHART: Tastes a little bit like lemons.

DOMONOSKE: Like lemons? (Laughter).

Yeah, he was pulling my leg, but let's run with this. Imagine that you're a lemon farmer, and the world suddenly wants a lot more lemonade. The price of lemons, say, triples, and it's going to take time for the world to plant more lemon trees. What do you do? You sell every single lemon you possibly can, right? You squeeze out every drop of juice. That's what Silver Peak is doing - and not just Silver Peak. Big mines in South Africa, Argentina and Australia are ramping up output quickly. Susan Zou is a senior analyst with Rystad Energy.

SUSAN ZOU: Actually, in the past six months, we have been already quite surprised to see how fast those existing projects have responded to the lithium price hikes.

DOMONOSKE: And they're making a lot of money in the process. Albemarle, the mining giant that owns Silver Peak, just had its best quarter ever. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade. Boosting output at existing mines is the obvious way to make more lithium, but it's not the only way. There's lithium in the brine used at geothermal power plants. Lots of companies are trying to figure out how to extract that lithium at a profit. And there's a magnesium mine in the U.S. that was making lithium as a waste byproduct. They're selling it now. That's kind of like finding a giant stash of lemons in a trash heap. Kwasi Ampofo is the head of metals and mining at BloombergNEF.

KWASI AMPOFO: There's something interesting about high prices. It incentivizes everything.

DOMONOSKE: Back at Silver Peak mine, a man drove to the top of a pile of salt as big as a hill. This is salt that was scraped out of these evaporation ponds left over as part of the lithium mining process. It was a crunchy and oddly sparkly setting for an interview. Karen Narwold is the chief administration officer of Albemarle, the company that owns this mine. She says better technology is going to help companies meet this growing demand for lithium.

KAREN NARWOLD: We're all looking at additional ways to get more.

DOMONOSKE: Aside from squeezing everything it can out of mines like Silver Peak, Albemarle is also making plans to reopen a big old lithium mine in North Carolina. That's a rock mine, not a brine mine like this, and it's been closed for years.

NARWOLD: But it was an operating mine back pre-1980s.

DOMONOSKE: And reopening a mine? It's an easier lift than launching a brand-new one. Albemarle will also start recycling old batteries for lithium. And then remember how some companies are finding lithium in the trash heap? That could even happen here.

NARWOLD: There's a theory that the salt that comes out of these ponds can also be reharvested.

DOMONOSKE: It turns out that giant hill of salt we were sitting on top of? It's full of traces of lithium. Now, existing mines and shut down mines and trash heaps - all of that can only go so far. To meet projected long-term demand for lithium, analysts say the world will still need new mines, and that means hard conversations about where and how to build them responsibly. But as those conversations unfold, the fight against climate change isn't waiting to hear how they pan out. The global race to make more lithium? It's already underway. Camila Domonoske, NPR News, from Silver Peak, Nev. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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