CLEAN TECH:

Bill aims to expand U.S. lithium production for advanced batteries

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) has introduced legislation to boost the domestic production of lithium for high-tech batteries used in cars and electric smart grids.

The bill (S. 421) would authorize $40 million in Department of Energy grants to companies involved in producing and developing the advanced lithium technologies.

"With the price of fuel rising, it is more vital than ever to support domestic energy production," Hagan said in a statement. "The strength of the American economy depends on investment in clean energy technologies that will bolster our national security, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, protect our environment and, most importantly, create jobs."

Lithium is used in ceramics and glass and is increasingly important in advanced batteries for technologies from mobile phones and computers to electric cars.

Hagan's legislation would help two companies with a presence in her state of North Carolina, FMC and Chemetall, that are involved in the production of lithium for high-tech needs. While most lithium is mined overseas, the two companies, along with Chile's SQM, are the only three global manufacturers capable of making the type of lithium needed for advanced batteries.

"This legislation will encourage North Carolina and American companies to scale-up domestic production of energy efficient lithium products that will power the cars and smart grid of the future," Hagan said. "To support American private-sector job creation, we must continue to invest in research and development and clean energy."

FMC Lithium general manager Jon Evans said the legislation is about "helping us to come up with new and innovative ways to improve the quality and purity levels of our products."

The demand for high-quality lithium is expected to rise with the increased production of hybrid and electric vehicles, which call for long-lasting, high-performance batteries.

"What we have been seeing is much stricter guidelines that companies, the automotive companies, are talking about," Evans said.

But even with companies like FMC and Chemetall as leaders in lithium production, Asian countries have cornered the high-tech battery market. Evans would like to see that change as well.

"The market in Asia is much much bigger," he said.

President Obama has set a goal, which some experts call unrealistic, of putting 1 million "advanced technology vehicles" on the road by 2015. That would lead to a reduction in U.S. oil consumption of about 750 million barrels through 2030, according to a White House fact sheet on technological innovation.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included grant money for advanced battery development. The United States Advanced Battery Consortium, a collaboration between the Department of Energy and car companies, is also working to promote the domestic high-tech battery industry.

"From a negligible portion of the world's advanced battery manufacturing today, U.S. production capacity for advanced vehicle batteries will amount to more than 20 percent of global production capacity estimated to be online in 2012," according to the White House document.

More mining efforts under way

The United States imports most of its lithium for production despite being the leading producer of "value added" lithium materials, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Right now, there is only one operation in the United States, owned by Chemetall, involved in extracting the element.

FMC used to mine lithium from rock in North Carolina, but it is more cost-effective for the company to get lithium from brine deposits in Latin America. And the lithium from those deposits is more apt for high-tech batteries.

"It all comes down to the economics of it," said Brian Jaskula, a USGS lithium expert. "Although we have a ton of spodumene in North Carolina, it cannot compete economically with the Chilean and Argentine reserves."

Jaskula said foreign reserves are enough to meet current and future demand. Still, there are efforts at increasing lithium extraction and mining around the world, since the demand for lithium-powered batteries is expected to eventually skyrocket.

"In the long term, it looks like there will be a need for additional operations," Jaskula said.

One company, Western Lithium USA, hopes to extract millions of tons of the element from clay in northern Nevada (Land Letter, June 17, 2010). Other companies are looking for more brine pools.

"It just doesn't mean the brine isn't there," Jaskula said. "Someone just had to find it."

Still, scholars and boosters of American energy independence worry about U.S. reliance on foreign sources of raw lithium.

In a report released last month, the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society urged more domestic production of what they called "energy critical elements," including lithium, which the report points out is also used in wind turbines (E&ENews PM, Feb 18).

The report's authors are touting legislation (S. 383) from Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) to promote U.S. mining of rare-earth minerals and other elements important to energy security.

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