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At Silver Peak, concentrated lithium turns the last in a string of ponds an eerie blue. Photo: The Electric

The Electric: In Remote Nevada, Evidence of the Decade’s Lithium Shortage

Photo: At Silver Peak, concentrated lithium turns the last in a string of ponds an eerie blue. Photo: The Electric

Save the date: The world is in a lithium shortage, and looks likely to remain so for at least the remainder of the decade. This is bad news for those hoping for a fast and massive shift to electric vehicles. To plumb why the industry hasn't managed to move more rapidly, and what it can do to turn things around, I'm delighted to host Eric Norris, president of lithium at Albemarle, the world's largest lithium producer, for a live chat Nov. 1 at 11 am ET. Register here and email me if you'd like to bring a guest: [email protected].   

One place where lithium production is expanding is Silver Peak, Nev., a desolate stretch of desert three hours north of Las Vegas where Albemarle turns brine into lithium carbonate. I recently visited the site, and this week we look at why lithium is proving hard to scale up. 

SILVER PEAK, Nev.—If people snap up electric vehicles at the rate experts predict, lithium mining companies will have to triple their production of the metal by 2025 and double it again by the end of the decade. It doesn’t get easier after that: By 2050, lithium supplies will need to increase twentyfold, according to a new report by Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. 

That has sent miners scrambling to boost supply. Albemarle, the world’s largest lithium producer, has spent $60 million over the past year to double production at a mining operation 200 miles northwest of Las Vegas. After the expansion is complete in 2025, the Silver Peak facility will pump 12,300 gallons a minute of lithium-containing brine from aquifers as much as 3,000 feet beneath the desert, and convert them into enough lithium carbonate to equip 160,000 EVs a year.

Lithium is central to efforts to diminish China’s dominance of the EV battery industry. The U.S. has small but meaningful reserves, both in brine beneath Nevada and buried in rock in the Eastern U.S. and elsewhere. Most of the world’s known reserves are in countries with which the U.S. has generally favorable relations: Australia, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.

But the experience at Silver Peak, the U.S.’s only major lithium-producing mine, also shows how difficult it will be to boost the lithium supply to keep up with demand. The world currently produces about 500,000 tons of lithium a year. Albemarle’s upgrade is intended to double Silver Peak’s annual capacity to 10,000 tons in 2025. But that would add just 0.5% of a needed million-ton global hike in lithium production that year. 

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