Friday, December 3rd, 2021

Automakers hunt for battery materials they need to become EV leaders

Investments in sourcing battery metals could avoid a shortage of crucial materials as EV sales scale upward.

In July, GM agreed to a multimillion-dollar strategic investment and commercial collaboration with Controlled Thermal Resources to secure low-cost lithium from the Salton Sea, a toxic lake near California’s border with Mexico. The project is expected to yield battery-grade lithium by 2024.

Rod Colwell, CEO of Controlled Thermal Resources, predicts an inflection point around that time when global demand for lithium — a key ingredient to all proposed battery chemistries — will outweigh supply. For U.S. demand alone, Controlled Thermal Resources will not be able to produce enough battery-grade lithium, “even though this is probably one of the largest resources on the planet,” Colwell said. “It’s one of the problems we are going to try to accommodate and solve as we go.”

Establishing a lithium extraction 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-extraction process that can yield battery-grade lithium in days or weeks.

With direct extraction and other innovations, Manish Chawla, global general manager for the industrial sector at IBM, is confident the industry will avoid a battery crisis. Investments are bound to increase significantly along with EV demand, he said.

“Lithium was sitting around in the Salton Sea for ages. Why was there no movement? Because there was no capital flowing,” Chawla said. “Need drives capital. Capital drives innovation and sustainable exploitation of resources.”

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