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  • This is lithium.

  • Pretty soon, we're going to need a lot of it.

  • Lithium is a useful metal.

  • It spends its entire existence trying to get rid of its one outer electron but, crucially,

  • this reaction can be both controlled and reversed.

  • That means, properly configured, the metal can discharge energy when needed, take in

  • more energy, and then discharge that energy.

  • Essentially, it can act as a battery.

  • It's only been a few decades since lithium-ion batteries reached commercial feasibility but,

  • in that time, they have become the power source of choice for portable electronics thanks

  • to their perfect blend of safety and lightness.

  • However, the latest major tech boom, the latest infatuation of Silicon Valley and Wall Street

  • alike, is centered around the largest consumer electronics product to date: electric vehicles.

  • And pretty soon, we're going to need a lot of them.

  • The UK, for example, has committed to banning internal combustion car sales by 2030.

  • To replace its 31.5 million vehicles, about 236,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate are

  • needed.

  • To produce 236,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate, every lithium mine in the world

  • would have to devote its output to this one use for nine months, and there are a whole

  • lot more countries, a whole lot more lithium applications, and a whole lot more growth

  • in the forecast.

  • While the industry and its issues may be complex, the way in which battery-grade lithium is

  • produced is not.

  • Four countries dominate the industryArgentina, Chile, Australia, and China combined account

  • for 92% of the globe's production.

  • The metal is extracted from the ground at massive sites like the Greenbushes mine in

  • Western Australia, which is the world's largest hard-rock lithium mine.

  • The site was selected due to the abundance of spodumene in the area, which is a mineral

  • that contains large concentrations of lithium.

  • Once the raw material is extracted from the ground, it's transported two and a half

  • hours north to the Kwinana Lithium Plant near Perth—a facility majority owned and operated

  • by a Chinese company, Tianqi Lithium, which is responsible for almost half of the world's

  • production of the metal.

  • Once refined, lithium hydroxide and other compounds are sold to battery manufacturers,

  • which in about three quarters of cases means one of three companiesLG Chem, CATL, or

  • Panasonic.

  • The problem, however, is the world's solution.

  • In addition to the UK, Iceland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden,

  • Israel, Singapore, and South Korea have each committed to banning the sale of internal

  • combustion passenger vehicles within the next decade.

  • Adding up their annual passenger vehicle sales numbers from 2019, that means the absolute

  • base-case demand for EVs a decade from now will be 9.5 million per year.

  • Just to reach that, EV production would have to quintuple, but even the most conservative

  • forecasters don't dare tread anywhere close to a number as low as 9.5 million in 2032.

  • The market is waking up to what this means for lithium demand.

  • Across 2021, Seaborne lithium prices rose from around $8,000 per metric ton to over

  • $30,000—a 400% rise in a mere twelve monthsand lithium is hardly the only crucial metal for

  • lithium-ion battery productionit's just the one in the name.

  • Cobalt and nickel are also critical to most commercially-available versions of these batteries,

  • and the situation is hardly different with them.

  • Cobalt prices doubled across 2021, while nickel rose to its highest price in a decade.

  • So, the world needs a lot more metals, but right now, it's hard to believe the world's

  • going to get them.

  • The biggest hurdle the industry faces is best exemplified here: Thacker Pass, Nevada.

  • Thacker Pass is located in one of the most sparsely populated areas of the country.

  • It's an half hour's drive to the nearest store, an hour to the nearest supermarket,

  • and three to the nearest Starbucks.

  • The few roads that exist in the area are lucky to see a few cars an hour, travelling to and

  • from the various remote farms, ranches, and communities dotting northern Nevada.

  • That could soon change, though.

  • 250 miles or 400 kilometers to the south is the Silver Peak Lithium Mine.

  • This is the nation's only currently operating major lithium mine, despite the fact that

  • the US is one of the largest EV markets and home to the world's largest EV manufacturer.

  • China, also a major EV market home to major EV manufacturers, has made significant headway

  • in building up its domestic lithium production capacity and the country's companies also

  • have significant presences at the world's other major lithium production sites.

  • This has come to concern those in charge in the US.

  • Therefore, sights are set on Thacker Passhome to the US' largest lithium deposit.

  • This site could singlehandedly propel the US into the ranks of major lithium producers,

  • but getting a mine up and running there has proveddifficult.

  • The way in which major lithium deposits are distributed across the world is rather cruel.

  • Overwhelmingly, they're located in arid regions with little water availability, like

  • Nevada.

  • Thacker Pass receives less than 10 inches or 25 centimeters of rain a year.

  • However, the extraction and processing of lithium requires enormous quantities of water.

  • It's expected that operations at the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine would require 3,224

  • gallons or 12,204 liters of water per minuteroughly equivalent to the contents of a backyard,

  • above-ground pool.

  • That water would be used to pump into the ground as part of the extraction process,

  • during refinement, and to conduct necessary dust control at the site.

  • To get this water the mine would have to pump it out of the ground using wells, but every

  • acre-foot of water in the area is strictly allocated, given the degree of scarcity.

  • So the mine has to buy up water rights from others in order to gain the legal right to

  • use it.

  • What that means, however, is that there's a direct trade off between one use and another,

  • and in this case, the other use is predominantly ranching and farmingtwo key tenants to

  • the local economy.

  • In addition, there's a chance the project could do far more to further the inaccessibility

  • of water in northern Nevada.

  • The US Bureau of Land Management's Environmental Impact Study for the project found that it

  • presented the distinct possibility of leaking unacceptable levels of arsenic into the area's

  • groundwater table which could take the entire region's water supply offline for hundreds

  • of years.

  • In an area where the availability of water undergirds almost all economic activity, that

  • has people seriously concerned.

  • The issues only compound on top of that.

  • As Thacker Pass is, of course, a mountain pass, it acts as a wildlife corridor between

  • the Double-H and Montana mountainstwo biodiversity hotspots.

  • Therefore, the environmental impact study found the project likely to destroy or deteriorate

  • thousands of acres of habitat used by the pronghorn antelope, sage grouse, golden eagle,

  • and other unique species.

  • For interrelated reasons, the project also has a number of local indigenous tribes concernedthe

  • most vocal of which is the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe.

  • They say that during the era of American soldiers rounding up and shipping indigenous people

  • off to reservations, two of the tribe's families hid out in the shelter Thacker Pass

  • providedso they directly attribute the continued existence of their tribe to the

  • area.

  • In addition, they consider the pass a sacred site, in part because of a historic massacre

  • they say occurred there.

  • This assertion, however, was directly challenged in a court case related to the mine project,

  • and the judge rejected the claim citing a lack of evidence.

  • To add to their opposition, the tribe put forward evidence linking the development of

  • similar resource-extraction projects, which are predominately staffed by men, to increases

  • in the rape and murder of indigenous women in nearby areas.

  • Even just looking at these few headline issues, it becomes clear that the Thacker Pass lithium

  • mine project is mired in a nearly insurmountable web of controversy and conflict, and it's

  • hardly alone in that status.

  • Much of the evidence opponents to the Thacker Pass mine have put forward is based on real-world

  • experiences in the lithium trianglethe nexus between Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia

  • that hosts some of the world's most productive lithium production facilities.

  • An area in a similar situation—a remote, arid landscape punctuated by small communities

  • home to a historically oppressed indigenous populationthe lithium triangle has seen

  • an economic boon, but it's come at the cost of environmental and cultural devastation.

  • Just as the issues are not confined to one geography, they're not even confined to

  • lithium alone.

  • Some 70% of the world's cobalt, a crucial component to current battery tech, comes from

  • the Democratic Republic of the Congothe 8th poorest country in the world, according

  • to World Bank figures.

  • While a majority of the cobalt mining is conducted by large mining companies with often shaky

  • safety and human rights records, a concerningly large minority is accomplished through what's

  • referred to asartisanalmining—a term defining the illegal, informal practice

  • of individuals mining cobalt by themselves and selling it on to shady middlemen.

  • The complete lack of safety standards or regulations in the sector means child labor and deadly

  • mine collapses are rampant.

  • For those that aren't directly injured or killed on the job, long-term exposure to cobalt

  • mines has been linked to significant health effects later in life, and fatal birth defects

  • for children in the region.

  • Altogether, there's almost no such thing as ethical cobalt.

  • There's also almost no such thing as green lithium.

  • There's little appetite anywhere to increasing lithium mining in the places where it's

  • accessible, and little progress has been made in the DRC in making cobalt mining less socially

  • disastrous.

  • As demand for EVs and their batteries increases, getting more cobalt and lithium will be incredibly

  • difficult.

  • However, on top of that, getting more cobalt and lithium that's more ethical and green,

  • or even as ethical and green, will be next to impossible.

  • But to decarbonize driving, solutions must be found.

  • One option, rather than finding more raw materials, is to need less of them.

  • Of course, the way to do that is by making batteries better.

  • The most promising short-term innovation that could fulfill that mission is solid state

  • batteries.

  • Whereas traditional EV batteries have a liquidy, viscous lithium-based electrolyte, solid state

  • batteries rather use a solid, metal composition as their ion transport mechanism.

  • This switch has a number of benefits including a higher safety profile that reduces the risk

  • of fire, and therefore reduces the need for expensive safety features.

  • Solid state batteries can also be made without cobalt or nickel, which eliminates two problematic

  • and costly necessities in current battery tech.

  • Most significant, however, is solid state batteries' higher energy density.

  • Traditional lithium ion compositions used in EV battery packs store about 114 watt-hours

  • of energy per pound, or 250 per kilogram.

  • That means one pound of battery could move a Tesla Model 3, for example, 0.4 miles, or

  • 1 kilogram 1.3 kilometers.

  • Meanwhile, it's expected that solid state batteries will be able to store between 175

  • and 225 watt-hours per pound or 400 to 500 per kilogramessentially doubling battery