Lithium mining in Utah could be the next big industry - Utah Business (2023)

BBetween catastrophic droughts in the West, seemingly never-ending wildfires, and New York City under water, the past two years have shed light on the harsh reality of Earth's rapid climate change. But earlier this year, a stunning report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) woke up world leaders to another hard truth: The world simply doesn't have enough lithium to meet the emissions targets that scientists believe are necessary to avoid the worst effects. of the climate. to change .

"Today, the data show an imminent mismatch between the world's rising climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals essential to realizing those ambitions," IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “If not addressed, these potential vulnerabilities could slow global progress towards a clean energy future and make it more expensive – thereby hindering international efforts to combat climate change. This is what energy security looks like in the 21st century.”

Accordinglythe report, demand for lithium will grow faster than any other mineral, increasing 40 times by 2040 if the world meets the Paris Agreement targets. However, existing mines and projects under development will only meet half of this demand.

Utah, thanks to its unique geography, can help meet that demand – and at least four companies have already announced their intention to start mining lithium here. Once too expensive to extract, new technology has made Utah's lithium affordable for the first time, potentially unlocking an essentially inexhaustible supply of lithium in the Great Salt Lake. The state's rich mining history may be the only remaining impediment to the resource.

Utah natural lithium mine

Sometimes grouped with so-called "rare earth" minerals, lithium is relatively abundant. The problem, experts say, is accessing and focusing on it. Small amounts of lithium are scattered in soil all over the world, but in most cases lithium is so widespread that trying to mine it would never be efficient enough.

Utah is a natural exception to this rule. Before it dried up 12,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville scavenged lithium from surrounding rocks and concentrated the mineral in its sediments. This concentrated source of lithium is present in remnants of Bonneville throughout the state, including the Great Salt Lake, Bonneville Salt Flats and Sevier Lake. According to Andrew Rupke, a senior mineral geologist at the Utah Geological Survey, underground saltwater reservoirs that contain lithium are also scattered throughout southeastern Utah.

"To get these brines, an evaporation process must be started," says Rupke. "That concentrates the ions in the brine, and the concentration increases as you evaporate more and more water. Lithium tends to stay in the brine – you have to vaporize everything before the lithium separates out as a solid."

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It's unclear where Utah's lithium came from before it leaked from surrounding soils into the state's waterways, says Rupke. Certain types of glassy volcanic rock are believed to be the main source. As in water, lithium is one of the last elements to fall out of volcanic magma as it cools. As magma slowly cools—usually because it's still underground—it forms crystal-laden rocks like pegmatite, which contain higher concentrations of lithium and other rare minerals. These intrusive volcanic rock formations are common in Utah and could be why local streams and lakes accumulate lithium over time, says Rupke.

Lithium mining in Utah could be the next big industry - Utah Business (1)

Utah brines are not necessarily the richest in lithium in the world. That claim to fame would go to places like Australia, which the IEA says extracts most of the world's lithium, as well as Chile and China. But the real reason Utah's lithium has remained untouched all these millennia isn't because of the more moderate concentrations that are present here, says Rupke. That's because the technology needed to extract it didn't exist yet.

The problem with Utah's lithium is that it tends to mix with other minerals, particularly magnesium, according to Joe Havasi, director of natural resources at Compass Minerals, a mining company with operations on the northern arm of the Great Salt Lake near Ogden. . The company already technically mines lithium with the other minerals it harvests. The problem, says Havasi, is figuring out how to separate the lithium into a pure product that can be sold. At least that was the problem until recently.

For the past three years, Compass Minerals has been testing a type of technology called Direct Lithium Extraction, a process that uses various chemical compounds to bond with lithium, making it easier to remove from mineral-rich brines. Once the lithium is isolated, a second chemical is added to break the chemical bonds and produce pure battery lithium.

With this technology, Compass Minerals believes it can start producing 20,000 to 25,000 tons of lithium per year by 2025 with minimal changes to its existing operations.

Compass Minerals isn't the only Utah company pursuing lithium.usa-magnesium, a mining company on the west side of the Great Salt Lake, began selling lithium extracted from the company's by-product salts inventory last August.battery global metalsacquired land on the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover in March of this year; The salt water brines below the property contained high concentrations of lithium and magnesium.Anson Resourcesis also exploring extracting lithium from underground brines in the Paradox Basin in the southeastern corner of the state.

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"We are still in the process of determining the total staffing requirements," said Ryan Barlett, chief strategy officer at Compass Minerals. “But there will certainly be an impact on jobs. There will be economic implications for the state... and it will give the state and region a reputation for supplying materials to the electric vehicle industry. The economic impact, direct and noticeable, can be very great for the state”.


With the rise ofelectric vehiclesand renewable energy, there is no doubt that future demand for lithium will outpace current production, creating new opportunities for those looking to enter the market. According to the IEA, building an average electric car requires six times more minerals than a conventional car; A wind turbine uses nine times more minerals than a gas-powered plant.

But the explosion of interest since 2019 is likely also driven by current circumstances, according to Paul Saunders, president of the Energy Innovation Reform Project, a nonprofit that promotes research and policy solutions that ensure the reliability and safety of clean energy. . Supply chain disruptions following the Covid pandemic have raised lithium prices and heightened tensions with China, which controls 50-70% of the world's lithium refining and processing capacity. Even lithium mined in Utah at US Magnesium is being sold to Japan, Korea and China for processing and manufacturing.

Given the political situation and the proven fragility of global supply chains, a resurgence of interest in – and possibly subsidies for – mining and domestic manufacturing is entirely possible, says Saunders. "I hope the supply chain issue is a long-term issue," says Saunders. “Certainly, I think the pandemic has brought that to a lot of policymakers. But I think the real driver is partly geopolitical and partly a revival of political focus on domestic manufacturing.”

But inevitably, Saunders says, this growing emphasis on localized supply chains will clash with the social and environmental movements of recent decades. A large part of the reason China and other nations control so much of the world's natural resources is not because they had more natural resources to begin with. That's because, since the 1970s, Americans have dismissed mining as a nasty, dirty industry, erecting social barriers that have largely relegated mining to regions with less stringent regulatory oversight.

"Since Tesla manufactures batteries in California and plans to expand that, as far as I know, shipping them out of Utah is a lot cheaper than loading [lithium] on a ship and shipping it from Africa," says Saunders. At least in mining, the path of least resistance is not always the path of least financial cost.

This is the double-edged sword facing Utah — or any potential lithium-producing region — will face, says Saunders. Especially in a state like Utah, which has had a belated but strong response to the environmental movement, lithium can be rejected by communities that don't see the resource industry's potential to provide the high-tech, high-paying jobs they want. . And that could shift lithium production to historically disadvantaged communities where oversight is likely to be lax.

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“Some tend to think that solar and wind energy is not very costly because sunlight and wind are free. And in practice they do,” says Saunders. “Climate change mitigation is an important goal, but anyone pondering these issues should be aware of the fact that it will require a lot more mining. It has to happen somewhere, and wherever it happens, it will be in someone's community.”

Lithium mining in Utah could be the next big industry - Utah Business (2)

Utah's mining history has not done much to make the state attractive to the industry. Conflicts between miners and settlers in search of a more agricultural way of life broke out almost immediately after the colonization of the state. Utah became one of the first states in the United StatesAir quality regulation in the early 1900sin direct response to pollution from the state's growing mining and metallurgical industries. Today, components of Kennecott's copper mining operations in Utah are considered the first and second largest sources of pollution in the state of Utah.the EPA Toxic Release Inventory. US magnesium is the state's fourth-largest polluter.

US Magnesium and other companies interested in producing lithium in Utah in the future are currently working under temporary agreements with the state, according to Jamie Barnes, Sovereign Lands Program Administrator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Because much of Utah's lithium is found in the Great Salt Lake — technically owned by the state of Utah as a state park — companies wanting to extract minerals or other resources from it must pay royalties to the Barnes Division. However, there are currently no royalties set for lithium. That, says Barnes, will be the subject of future regulations - a process that Barnes promises to take into account all potential environmental impacts.

Havasi believes that the impact of lithium mining on the lake will be minimal. Because lithium can be recovered from brines already collected by the Company, Compass Minerals does not need to expand its physical footprint or build extensive new infrastructure to harvest the resource. In addition, the company uses wind and solar energy to power the evaporation processes it uses.

Clean energy for a win-win-win situation

Even lithium itself is something of a renewable resource when it comes to the Great Salt Lake, says Havasi. Data from Compass Minerals suggests that streams and runoff currently flowing into the lake are washing away around 1 million tonnes of salts and minerals, including lithium, each year to replenish some of the 25,000 tonnes the company hopes to extract.

"We're excited about [our process] because it's not a mine," says Havasi. "We see this as a much greener approach compared to what others might be considering."

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Even Lynn de Freitas, executive director of the environmental group Friends of Great Salt Lake, sees some potential environmental benefits that could come from mining lithium in Utah. Mineral extraction in the lake, she explains, can only happen if there is still water in the lake.

"Water is the lifeblood of the lake for many reasons," she says. "And everyone understands that when the lake gets as low as it does now, there's a little bit of the 'eek' factor going on, because in the past the Compass has had to widen its inlet channels to bring in brine, among other things. The industry understands. They always will work to ensure that we have water for this system.”

And while the numbers are yet to be established, Barnes also sees a potential financial benefit for the lake. All royalties collected from mining companies are deposited in a special fund restricted by law and can only be spent on projects and initiatives that benefit the state's land resources. Future royalties from the lake could be used to fund the development of a comprehensive new management plan to replace the state's current and outdated plans, says Barnes.

Given the potential environmental benefits – rather than trade-offs – and its ability to continually replenish its own lithium reserves, Havasi believes that mining lithium in the Great Salt Lake may represent a best-in-class win-win situation. It's only a matter of time before the industry begins to cement Utah's position as a leader in clean energy, he says.

"It's exciting because it's a new industry and it's clean technology," says Havasi. “It's exciting because we can leverage the infrastructure we have to get this to market quickly. That could happen very soon and I think with clean technology there is no limit to Utah's potential.”

Lithium mining in Utah could be the next big industry - Utah Business (3)


What is the future of lithium mining? ›

Lithium extraction projects are multiplying in 2023, with spodumene (ore-based lithium) mine sites set to open in Australia, Africa, and France. Brine sites in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia are seeing an increase in production, with talks of emerging technologies being adopted to be able to meet rising lithium demands.

What company is the biggest miner of lithium? ›

Ganfeng Lithium (OTC Pink:GNENF,SZSE:002460,HKEX:1772) Ganfeng Lithium is an important Chinese lithium producer. It is China's largest lithium compound producer, and is one of the world's largest lithium metal producers in terms of production capacity.

Who owns the largest lithium mine in America? ›

The mine is proposed by Lithium Nevada, LLC - a wholly owned subsidiary of Lithium Americas Corp, whose largest shareholder is the world's largest lithium mining company, Chinese Ganfeng Lithium.
Thacker Pass Lithium Mine.
CountryUnited States
Coordinates41°42′30.25″N 118°03′17.12″W
9 more rows

What is the problem with lithium mining? ›

Why is lithium extraction bad for the environment? Any type of resource extraction is harmful to the planet. This is because removing these raw materials can result in soil degradation, water shortages, biodiversity loss, damage to ecosystem functions and an increase in global warming.

What three companies could you invest into that mine for lithium? ›

Sigma Lithium (NASDAQ:SGML): Groat do Cirilo mine offers the worlds highest grade lithium spodumene deposits. Albemarle (NYSE:ALB): Lithium production has grown by triple-digit margins. Livent (NYSE:LTHM): Anticipates achieving a robust 15,000 tonnes of production from its Chinese operations by 2023.

Who owns the largest lithium mines in the world? ›

With 8 million tons, Chile has the world's largest known lithium reserves. This puts the South American country ahead of Australia (2.7 million tons), Argentina (2 million tons) and China (1 million tons).

Is lithium a good investment for the future? ›

The future is being powered by lithium, a metal that is the key ingredient for making lightweight, power-dense batteries. Electric vehicles (EVs) depend on lithium batteries and EV sales are seeing massive annual growth, and analysts expect global EV sales to increase 57% in 2022 on a year-over-year basis.

Will lithium be a good investment? ›

According to the Imarc Group, the lithium battery market stood at $45 billion in 2022. Given the high demand for electric vehicles and computer batteries, the market is expected to skyrocket to $93.3 billion by 2028.


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