Investments in battery metal supply could avert a shortage of essential materials as sales of electric vehicles increase.
In July, GM agreed to a strategic multi-million dollar investment and business collaboration with Controlled Thermal Resources to obtain low-cost lithium from the Salton Sea, a poisonous lake near the California-Mexico border. The project is expected to produce battery-grade lithium by 2024.
Rod Colwell, CEO of Controlled Thermal Resources, predicts an inflection point at this time when global demand for lithium – a key ingredient in all proposed battery chemistries – will outweigh supply. For US demand alone, Controlled Thermal Resources will not be able to produce enough battery grade lithium, “even though it is probably one of the most important resources on the planet,” Colwell said. “This is one of the issues that we will try to accommodate and resolve as we go along.”
Establishing a lithium mining site can take up to a decade. Current mining processes take up to two years to produce battery-grade lithium, but ongoing trials by Controlled Thermal Resources and others use a modified direct mining process that can produce battery-grade lithium in a few days or weeks.
With direct mining and other innovations, Manish Chawla, global general manager of the industrial sector at IBM, is confident that the industry will avoid a battery crisis. Investments are expected to increase significantly with the demand for electric vehicles, he said.
“The lithium had been in the Salton Sea for centuries. Why was there no movement? Because there was no flow of capital,” Chawla said. “Need drives capital. Capital drives innovation and the sustainable use of resources.”