EV Batteries

The EV transition needs lithium. Can a decommissioned mine help provide it?

Albemarle wants to return a North Carolina mine to its lithium-producing heyday.
article cover

Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photos: Morning Brew

· 14 min read

When Larry McDaniels began his lithium mining career in 1974, things were different.

The mine in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, was one of the biggest lithium producers in the world, and most of its output was going to industries like glass and ceramics.

“We worked normally 10-hour shifts six days a week and eight on Sunday. So it was a round-the-clock operation seven days a week,” McDaniels said. “Everybody would take cover when it came blasting time. It was nothing to throw a rock probably a half a mile…we actually used dynamite.”

Now, nearly half a century later, the Kings Mountain mine is dormant and filled with water, and one industry in particular—automakers—is clamoring for as much of the soft, white metal as lithium suppliers can sell them.

Albemarle Corporation, which supplies lithium to Tesla and other automakers and operates the only active lithium mine in the US at the Silver Peak mine in Nevada, owns the ~1,100-acre site that includes the former mine in Kings Mountain, along with a lithium hydroxide plant and R&D facility. The Charlotte-based specialty chemicals company doubled its lithium conversion capacity in 2022, and over the next few years it plans to build a facility capable of processing 100,000 tonnes of lithium and other battery materials somewhere in the Southeast.

But perhaps most ambitiously, it aims to reopen the Kings Mountain mine, which sits atop one of the most appealing lithium deposits in the US.

Barring a breakthrough in battery chemistry or the sudden embrace of public transit in the US, the transition away from fossil fuels will require lots of lithium-ion batteries. With the EV revolution well underway, demand for lithium-ion batteries is already exceeding supply, and experts predict shortages will continue for the next few years. By 2030, BloombergNEF estimates 40% of cars sold globally will be EVs, but there could be a lithium deficit of nearly 160,000 tonnes that year, according to projections from Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

Today, China operates the majority of the lithium-ion battery supply chain, including 60% of the world’s lithium refining capacity. But the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year heavily encourages domestic battery production, providing automakers with an incentive to push for more mining, more processing, and more assembly in North America.

”This is the time to bet big on a clean energy boom that’s made in America,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in October.

But even with skyrocketing demand from the influential US auto industry, federal support, and a site that previously provided lithium for decades, Albemarle could still be five to 10 years away from production in North Carolina—and that’s if things go smoothly for the company.

Searching for spodumene

The lithium resources in the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt have been well-known to mining companies for more than a century—long before the world’s largest reserves in South America were identified, but compared to how long it took the lithium to form, that’s no time at all.

The amalgamation of rocks in Kings Mountain originated between 500 million and 350 million years ago, hundreds of millions of years before even dinosaurs roamed. It was a period when plant life was just beginning to develop on land, and this region of North Carolina was covered by an ancient ocean.

The area was hospitable to lithium formation because of its unique geological chaos.

The Kings Mountain site sits on a shear zone—a point of weakness and disruption in the planet’s mantle and upper crust along a fault line—where one piece of the earth’s crust slowly slips beneath another and into the scorching mantle. The immense stress of this process creates temperature and pressure conditions that deform the rock without fracturing it, leaving it dappled with mineral-friendly crevices.

Albemarle’s lead geologist, Kwame Frempong, explained to us that hundreds of millions of years ago, magma seeped into the openings created by repeated collisions of the rock and began its transformation, freezing into crystal structures as it cooled to form granite, quartz, feldspar, mica, and—most importantly for the energy transition—spodumene.

“The mineral, or the rock, of interest, is what we are actually standing on,” Frempong told me as we talked near the dormant Kings Mountain mine on a sunny October day. The tops of large, white rocks poke up through the grass around the edge of the now water-filled pit.

“That’s pegmatite. And in the pegmatite, you have spodumene,” he said.

Grace Donnelly

Spodumene is a greenish crystal within the pegmatite, which also contains minerals like quartz and feldspar, and is made up of aluminum, silicon, and lithium.

The swath of minerals beneath the ground ~30 miles west of Charlotte is the largest hardrock lithium deposit in the US. It could still contain as much as 5 million metric tons of lithium metal, according to the US Geological Survey.

Lithium is relatively abundant in the earth’s crust, but it can be difficult to find deposits that are concentrated enough to be worth mining. But the host rock at the Kings Mountain site makes it an appealing part of the larger North Carolina deposit for lithium mining, Frempong said.

“There may be lithium along all these belts. But is it really economic? You go to certain places and it’s not, because it’s just not big enough to make those numbers work,” Frempong said.

Right now, Albemarle is engaged in this number-crunching exercise. At Kings Mountain, geologists are building and improving 3D models of the mineral deposit. The company will analyze these models to determine which sections of these ancient crystals might be most profitable, though Albemarle declined to share projections.

The company plans to potentially triple its global lithium production by the end of the decade, anticipating demand of 3.7 million metric tons by 2030—considerably more than some industry analysts expect. And Albemarle isn’t the only company interested in tapping North Carolina’s mineral resources to help meet that demand. Piedmont Lithium has a contract to supply lithium to Tesla and plans to build a 1,500-acre mine and conversion facility in nearby Cherryville that could produce 30,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide annually.

Lithium legacy

The human history of Kings Mountain’s mining industry is much briefer than the geologic, but it is still shaped by the rock underlying the community.

Located along the Charlotte-to-Atlanta rail line, Kings Mountain was incorporated in 1874. During the 18th and 19th centuries, miners searched for gold in the hills around the town. Tin mines also operated in the region during the early 20th century. Mining and textiles were the major industries, aided by the railroad’s proximity.

The lithium deposit at the Albemarle site was first mined by Foote Mineral Company, which was founded just two years after the town. The Kings Mountain lithium mine operated from 1938 to 1988, and three generations of the McDaniels family have worked at the site, beginning with Larry’s father in 1951.

Foote Mineral closed the mine in 1988 without a plan for reclamation, according to Kirsten Martin, Albemarle’s Kings Mountain community affairs manager. Albemarle came to own the site after acquiring Rockwood in 2015.

Although the blasting has stopped at Kings Mountain, other lithium production in the region has continued. Livent Corp., which still manufactures lithium hydroxide and other lithium products in nearby Bessemer City, has contracts with GM and BMW. Today the lithium comes from Argentina, but the company previously owned the Hallman Beam mine in Bessemer City for more than four decades, up until 1996.

Lithium is crucial for current electrification efforts, but as locals in the region well know, its mining and production are not without the potential for human and environmental hazards. Arsenic is naturally occurring around lithium deposits, and areas around Kings Mountain, including those near old mining operations, have had “arsenic levels above EPA standards in several public drinking wells” in the past—an issue that has been associated with hardrock mining.

Due in part to similar concerns, like the reliance on private wells for drinking water in much of the community, Piedmont Lithium’s nearby North Carolina operation has faced significant pushback from neighbors.

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.

As Catawba Riverkeeper, Brandon Jones is tasked with protecting the surface water of the Catawba and the South Fork watershed, which covers the lithium deposits around Kings Mountain, Cherryville, and Bessemer City.

“Mines, like any other large industrial site, are going to have both direct and indirect impacts to surface waters,” he told us. “Piedmont Lithium in their mining proposal showed that their operations would directly impact the neighbors’ wells and that they would be required to provide them with an alternative source of water.”

Erin Sanders, Piedmont’s SVP of corporate communications and investor relations, told us in an emailed statement that “mitigation plans have already been developed to address local wells in the event that water availability impacts occur.”

Grace Donnelly

Residents we spoke with who live near the proposed Piedmont Lithium mine wondered whether the potential environmental benefits of helping to enable rapid electrification outweighed the potential disruption of the land, water, and wildlife at the site. Approvals and construction at the proposed mine could end up being longer than its lifespan—the Piedmont deposit might only support extraction at the mine for ~11 years, according to Culper Research.

“Given lithium’s key role in the global decarbonization effort and its importance to US energy security, we expect Carolina Lithium to be a vital resource,” Sanders told us, referring to the project name. “The Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt is the most significant pegmatite resource known in the US in terms of size and infrastructure.”

Community members we spoke with seemed less worried about the potential impacts of mining the Kings Mountain site, which is located further from residential areas, just off the highway, and next to an active quarry.

“I think when you look at other mines that are trying to start up, they are talking about environmental impacts that are new to the area,” Alex Thompson, VP of lithium resources at Albemarle, told us. “By limiting our activities to areas that were previously part of the historic operation, it does sort of enable us to come into production a little quicker.”

Even so, reopening the Kings Mountain mine would not be without some environmental disruption. Some community members voiced concerns about water, hazardous waste, dust, and traffic in March 2022 at the first of a series of town halls hosted by Albemarle about its plans for the mine.

The once-bustling pit mine is currently filled with water, and around the white, lithium-filled rocks that peek through the earth at its perimeter, the area has grown up with vegetation. Residents frequent a walking trail that traverses the hill created by the mine’s waste rock, known as tailings. Blue herons can be seen balancing at the water’s edge. But that peaceful scene could look more like what McDaniels remembers in a few years. Reopening the mine would mean rerouting the hiking trail and disturbing habitats, as well as potentially offering buyouts to homeowners near the site.

In addition to conducting legally required environmental reviews, Albemarle said it plans to adhere to guidelines from the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, Ellen Lenny-Pessagno, global VP of government and community affairs at the mining giant, told us. She said the Kings Mountain mine aims to be the first to achieve the top rating from IRMA.

The company also said it is engaging with residents and local leaders to answer questions, provide educational opportunities, and create a plan for winding down the mine in the future.

Timing is everything

The move to revive lithium extraction at Kings Mountain coincides with building pressure to establish domestic battery production in the US and multi-billion dollar investments from companies looking to supply batteries to the EV industry.

Rising EV battery demand will require some 50 new lithium projects globally by 2030, according to estimates from the International Energy Agency—a historic undertaking for the slow-moving mining industry, which often spends at least 15 years to develop a single project.

And battery production capacity is surging, too: Investments in battery gigafactories totaled nearly $130 billion by the end of last year, according to Benchmark data shared with Tech Brew.

Even with these forceful tailwinds and experience in lithium mining, it could take at least another five years for Albemarle to start extracting from the North Carolina deposit.

Exploratory drilling at the Kings Mountain site was approved in 2017. Since then, Albemarle has drilled more than 300,000 feet of core across the property, Frempong told us. The company has invested about $100 million over the last four or five years to “understand what we have in the ground,” Thompson said.

Last year, the company began more in-depth research, tracking the environmental baselines and collecting other technical information for pre-feasibility studies, which are ongoing. Once these studies are complete, Albemarle will need to secure a permit to move forward with developing the mine. The company aims to apply for permits later this year and expects that process to take about two years.

The permitting process in the US and Europe is “extremely slow and extremely expensive,” Caspar Rawles, chief data officer at Benchmark, told us.

“At the moment, whilst there’s been sort of good messaging on expediting that process, there’s nothing concrete that’s happened,” he said of the ongoing discussion around permitting reform in the US.

Albemarle anticipates that the Kings Mountain mine will be online by 2027, according to executives on the company’s third quarter earnings call, which would put it at ~10 years from exploration to opening. But other spodumene projects in the US and Canada have taken 15 years or more to begin producing, according to the company.

“One of the complicating factors is that the permitting process for mines will almost invariably involve multiple federal and/or state agencies. So you have the bureaucracy of not only one sovereign but also different agencies and offices within that sovereign needing to coordinate on their reviews and evaluations,” Elizabeth Dawson, partner in the environment and natural resources group at Crowell & Moring, told us. “And then, of course, there’s always the potential for litigation once permits are issued or once environmental analyses are published, and that can also slow things down.”

Piedmont Lithium has already experienced a string of these sorts of delays.

The company originally said it would begin producing lithium in North Carolina as early as July 2022. Then executives pushed back that timeline; The company aimed to secure permits in 2022 and begin construction this year, CEO Keith Phillips told us last April. Instead, the state authority that’s been reviewing Piedmont Lithium’s environmental impact reports since August 2021 gave the company a second extension on the materials it must submit for the permitting process in January, following an initial push of the deadline in July 2022.

While progress may seem slow in comparison to the pace of EV adoption and lithium demand growth, there is some movement at the North Carolina spodumene deposit.

In October, Albemarle received a $150 million grant for the Kings Mountain site from the US Department of Energy as part of the first round of funding for battery manufacturing expansion in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The number of people working on mine development at Albemarle’s Kings Mountain site has gone from fewer than 10 to nearly 34 in the last year.

And ultimately, as mining groups rush to open—or reopen—lithium mines as fast as they can, the progress of battery science marches on, and transportation policy makers grapple with the question of how much lithium the US will really need.

The answer could depend on whether the future of transit in the US continues to be dominated by single-passenger vehicles. In a recent report, researchers pointed out that the world could reach zero-emissions transportation with much less lithium. By investing in recycling and considering a variety of approaches sustainable to transportation, overall reliance on cars could decrease amid the rise of EVs, according to the researchers—potentially achieving mobility goals with less mining.

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.