Tesla Inks Mexico Lithium Deal. But What About Wyoming?

In order to manufacture a lithium-ion battery, you must first have a supply of lithium. Duh. 5 years ago, when all this electric car hoopla was just getting started, China was rushing around, locking up the rights to all the major lithium supplies in the world. No doubt it felt that cornering the market for lithium would give it a significant competitive edge in the battle for electric car supremacy.

Some industry observers began muttering darkly about future wars for lithium. The US currently imports 80% of its lithium. Remember what happened when the US used to import 80% of its oil? You can see where this is leading, right?

Lithium ion battery for Chevy Volt
Lithium ion battery for Chevy Volt

Fortunately for the US, new lithium deposits have been found that are not already controlled by those greedy Chinese and are under the control of right-thinking Americans instead. Tesla has just concluded a deal with Bacanora Minerals Ltd. and Rare Earth Minerals Plc to supply it with lithium from clay deposits in northern Mexico. According to Market Watch, the two companies are part of a joint venture called the Sonora Lithium Project.

The lithium supply will be essential for Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada, which will produce the batteries for the “millions” of electric cars Tesla says it will be making in the near future, as well as storage batteries for the electrical grid and residential customers.

Meanwhile, TreeHugger reports that researchers at the University of Wyoming have discovered an enormous supply of lithium at the Rock Springs Uplift, a geological feature in southwest Wyoming. Initial tests indicate the lithium-rich brine from a 25-square-mile area could contain 228,000 tons of the stuff. That’s enough to meet annual U.S. demand and is twice the amount available at Silver Peak in Nevada, which is the biggest domestic lithium producer today.

What has the University of Washington team excited is that the lithium at the Rock Springs Uplift can be processed more cheaply than the lithium found at other locations, due to a number of factors.

First, extracting the lithium from brine requires large quantities of soda ash (sodium carbonate). The Rock Springs Uplift site is located within 30 miles of the world’s largest industrial soda ash supplies, so the cost of transporting it to the production area will be minimal.

Second, magnesium must be removed from brine before it can be used for lithium recovery and that can be an expensive process. The brine from the Rock Springs Uplift reservoirs is lower in magnesium than at other sites. Less magnesium means less money to remove it.

Third, the brine must be heated and pressurized to release the lithium it contains. Because the Rock Springs Uplift brine is far underground, it is already at a higher pressure and temperature than brine at existing lithium operations. That factor may eliminate an expensive step in the process, resulting in significant cost savings.

Most people agree that the electric car revolution will not happen until battery costs are reduced from $300 per kilowatt-hour today (on average) to less than $100 per kilowatt-hour. Finding a domestic supply of lithium that can be processed and transported inexpensively is good news for Tesla’s competitors and good news for America.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.