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As Chile rethinks lithium policies, US supply initiatives become more important

An aerial view of Chile's Atacama lithium mines. Image Credit: Alexander Gerst/Flickr/CC
An aerial view of Chile's Atacama lithium mines. Image Credit: Alexander Gerst/Flickr/CC

A new push in Chile to rethink the country's industrial mining of lithium, one of the minerals that's a critical component of the battery technologies vital for the transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles, puts more emphasis on the need for domestic production in the U.S.

The top three lithium producers in the world are Australia, Chile and China, but the demand for new lithium capacity is voracious and competition among miners, refiners, and producers is stiff.

That's why there's been a tremendous push for new technologies that can help ease supply constraints.

Some of these technologies are being developed and deployed by startups like Redwood Materials -- the business launched by a Tesla co-founder J.B. Straubel -- and Battery Resourcers, which announced its plans to build a new recycling and materials reclamation facility in Georgia earlier this week.

Other companies, like Phoenix Tailings and Nth Cycle are working on tech that can recycle waste streams from the mining industry to reclaim lithium and other rare earths that are used to make batteries and wind turbines and batteries.

But the demand for lithium and other materials will require more capacity than these companies can provide. That's why businesses are racing to find new mining solutions that can bring more of the precious materials the world needs to market.

For that, companies like Lilac Solutions and Controlled Thermal Resources are working together to create low-impact mining of lithium brine deposits located in the brackish, polluted land surrounding the Salton Sea.

California's Salton Sea is the state's largest lake... and a blasted wasteland caused by industrial degradation of a once-thriving lakeside resort community. Runoff of toxic chemicals from industrial farming polluted the lake and decimated communities located in the Imperial Valley region that surrounds it.

Dust blowing from the receding lake's exposed bed contributes to a prevalence of respiratory illnesses in the surrounding communities, but developing the lake's lithium deposits could provide the economic resources to responsibly redevelop the community and bring much-needed jobs back to the community.

It's also a crucial component of any plans to move the United States forward on the path to a renewable energy transition.

The Guardian laid out the problem confronting the U.S. in an amazing article on efforts to mine the Salton Sea last year.

The US government has a lithium supply problem. More than 80% of the world’s raw supply is mined in Australia, Chile, and China. The latter also controls more than half of the world’s lithium processing facilities and hosts three quarters of lithium-ion battery megafactories in the world; just a handful are in the US.

That's why the race is on to mine the Salton Sea's deposits. And Controlled Thermal Resources isn't the only company that's building operations around California's land-locked natural disaster. There are actually 11 existing geothermal plants around the lake that are retrofitting themselves to mine brine.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Energy Co. has grants for demonstration projects, according to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times. So does EnergySource, which opened its first geothermal plant in 2012 and will build a $500 million addition for mineral extraction by March of this year.

As the dollars start pouring in, the hope is that the local community which has suffered from environmental degradation and hyper-industrialization won't be left behind this time.

“The reality here is that we have seen international trade promises that have yet to be delivered, solar promises that have yet to be delivered, water promises … housing, geothermal, wind,” Tom Soto, a founder and managing partner at the Diverse Communities Fund, told The Guardian.]

“There have been a lot of promises that were supposed to have been delivered to the most economically depressed, disadvantaged areas.”

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