The Future of Lithium Mining

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blue skies over salt flats for an article on lithium mining

The Future of Lithium Mining

As the market for electric vehicles continues to rise rapidly, the need for lithium has also grown. This essential metal component of electric vehicle batteries is a highly sought-after and powerful metal. The World Economic Forum estimates that one in every seven cars is now electric. When we look to the future, it’s safe to assume the demand for lithium will only increase. 

Fortunately, the world has several rich deposits to draw from. Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile have historically provided upwards of 60% of the world’s lithium supply. Recently, however, Chile has clamped down on state control over its lithium deposits. This decision will potentially impact the global energy market significantly. As the United States and other governments continue to push for the green energy revolution, it’s important to understand how the future of lithium mining may be affected. 

All About Lithium

Since its discovery in 1817, lithium has had many uses over the years. Lithium is known for its soft silvery-white texture and low density. Lithium is the lightest of all metals, and its properties and uses are unique. While lithium has been used in the world of medicine, it’s typically recognized for its application in lithium batteries. 

Rechargeable lithium batteries have been used for years in power supply for small electronics, such as laptops, cellphones, cameras, and tablets. Lithium can be used as batteries for electric vehicles in more potent doses. Approximately 8 kg of lithium is used to create an electric vehicle battery. While this number is likely to decrease as technology progresses, it still creates a massive demand for lithium mining. 

The lithium mining process involves drilling in salt-rich areas, like deserts or saltwater regions. Most lithium is drawn from salt flats. This process consists of evaporating the current saltwater, drilling through the earth to find the lithium deposit, and removing the lithium after the saltwater has evaporated. Its delicate process must be handled correctly, as lithium is highly reactive with water. 

When run properly, lithium mining can be a safe and extremely efficient process—as our cover story on Teague Egan, CEO of EnergyX, documented in-depth. Unfortunately, many companies still rely on open pit mining, massive evaporation ponds, and other ecologically harmful practices. In any case, lithium mining practices are sure to progress as the demand for the world’s lightest metal increases. 

Lithium Deposits Around the World

Deposits of lithium can be found all around the world. The United States, Canada, Asia, Australia, and South America have numerous sites where lithium can be found. With stores of powerful metal all over the planet, Lithium is a valuable export for many nations, including China, Australia, and the United States. 

In South America, the nations of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia are clear front-runners in lithium mining. Producing upwards of 60% of the world’s lithium supply, these three nations are known as the lithium triangle. Even though a mere five years ago, Australia was in the running for the top spot, Chile rapidly increased its mining efforts to become a prolific lithium producer. 

The rich deposit of the lightest metal within the lithium triangle puts other deposits to shame. However, these Latin American nations have recently demonstrated a move towards resource nationalism. If the trend continues of hoarding the world’s largest storehouse of “battery metal,” it could mean electric vehicles may be challenging to acquire in the future. 

The Lithium Triangle: Argentine, Bolivia, and Chile

By far, the largest lithium deposits in the world are contained within the South American countries of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. These three earned their shared moniker as the lithium triangle because they have deposits that make up the majority of the world’s lithium supply. If these three nations form the lithium triangle, Chile is at the top of the triangle, with the largest deposit. 

The lithium triangle boasts some of the driest lands on the planet. The widespread salt flats, also known as Salars, across these three nations are the ideal environment for producing rich battery metal deposits. Through the process of finding these Salars, these three nations have capitalized on becoming world leaders in lithium supply. 

However, while these nations may have a wealth of natural resources, they are economically poor. The economic challenges facing the lithium triangle nations have undoubtedly led to the untapped potential for the wealth of resources they possess when it comes to lithium mining.

Chile Clamps Down on Lithium Control

Chile has had a tenuous history when it comes to resource mining. While hosting a combination of public and private mining firms, Chile has seen turmoil over its prosperous resources. Chile recently announced a bid towards more state control over its lithium resources. In an effort to focus more on production rather than mining, the nation holding the world’s largest deposit of lithium is moving towards resource nationalism. 

While this move is said to broaden Chile’s focus and explore higher-margin industries, it could significantly impact the electric vehicle market. If Chile restricts lithium mining, the world’s largest resource for the essential battery component, it may be limiting supply. 

This move follows a wave of other Latin American nations moving towards resource nationalism. With some of the world’s largest producers restricting or outright banning the exportation of essential battery components and metals, the economic downturn for the auto and a myriad of other dependent industries could be devastating. 

The impact of Chile’s announcement has already seen a significant downfall in US-based stockholders for Chilean mining companies. The new public-private model that Chile is implementing has investors wary of what the future may bring for lithium battery production. 

Future Opportunities for the Lithium Triangle

While Chile is cracking down on lithium mining, other members of the lithium triangle could be ramping up their drilling efforts. Argentina began exploring more lithium opportunities, which could prove vital to the world market in the future. As Argentina also boasts a massive amount of lithium deposits, it could become a potential powerhouse for lithium mining in the future.

If Argentina chooses to capitalize on Chile’s decision to further restrict lithium mining, it could have an opportunity to be a new supplier of lithium on a global scale. 

Though Bolivia has historically kept a tight lid on its natural resources, the Salars within the third nation in the lithium triangle are largely untapped. Despite Bolivia’s historic tendencies towards resource nationalism, the potential for lithium mining could be vast. Should Bolivia choose to center itself on the exportation of lithium, it could become a wealthy supplier of the sought-after metal. 

The Potential Outside the Lithium Triangle

Fortunately, the lithium triangle is not the world’s only resource for the alkaline metal. Australia, Canada, and the United States all have great potential in lithium mining. Though these areas may not have the vast quantities of lithium that belong to South America, they all have the potential to provide for the ever-increasing global lithium supply needs. 

The deposits of lithium outside the South American nations within the lithium triangle could prove to be a valuable stockpile in the future. As the world hurtles towards a lithium-powered planet, exploring other options for lithium mining could prove to be a priceless investment. 

Lithium Mining In the United States: The Salton Sea, California 

While the global market for lithium mining is ever-changing, the US also has the potential to become a crucial source of the lightest metal in the future. In California, the lithium deposits in the Salton Sea are poised to be a significant player in lithium mining and production

Where 50 years ago a desert oasis resided, now it remains a massive dry region. However, what seems to be a wasteland is actually one of the wealthiest lithium deposits in North America. 

Now becoming known as Lithium Valley, this area of California promises a more productive future for lithium batteries. Because of the rich deposits of lithium underneath the desert, the Salton Sea has the potential to power electric vehicles in the United States for the foreseeable future. 

Though the lithium triangle still provides around 60% of the world’s lithium supply, this US-based deposit could be a major contender in the coming years. 

The promise of a brighter lithium future in California will affect more than the environment. As a significant boon to the economy, the mining of Lithium Valley has the potential to radically change the economy of the surrounding areas and the nation as a whole. 

Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), Chair of the Assembly Select Committee, said in a recent press release, “Lithium Valley has the potential to accelerate our nation’s clean energy future while uplifting one of our most economically underserved regions.”

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