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Reviving North Carolina's lithium trade

Albemarle working to reestablish a US mine at Kings Mountain Metal Tech News – December 6, 2023

The world's leading lithium producer, Albemarle, is working to revive the Kings Mountain mine in North Carolina, which has been dormant since the 1980s and historically contains one of the nation's largest lithium deposits.

Kings Mountain boasts one of the few known hard rock lithium deposits in the United States, and a miner there is expected to produce enough of the namesake metal in lithium-ion batteries to support the manufacturing of approximately 1.2 million electric vehicles annually.

"As one of the only U.S.-based lithium companies to carry out lithium extraction, processing, and novel lithium battery material research in the United States, Albemarle is uniquely positioned to help power the clean energy revolution," said Albemarle President of Energy Storage Eric Norris. "Lithium is an essential ingredient in our sustainable energy future. Demand is expected to increase significantly, and it is imperative to secure our nation's supply of this critical resource."

Once the central hub for lithium worldwide, U.S. production moved overseas beginning in the 1970s. Now, only one mine remains active in Clayton Valley, Nevada, also operated by Albemarle.

Securing domestic supply

"Our country's energy security is dependent on the resilience of our supply chains. And for too long, the supply of critical raw materials and the manufacturing capacity to process them have been too concentrated beyond our borders," said U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. "Key supply chains in areas like clean energy are overconcentrated in China, in part due to unfair non-market practices over decades. And overdependence, including on China, makes America more vulnerable to risks that disrupt our access to that foreign production, from natural disasters, to macroeconomic forces, to deliberate actions such as economic coercion."

North Carolina is now part of the emerging U.S. "battery belt," where several operations are rushing to obtain permits for extracting and processing battery minerals to take advantage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which sports various tax incentives for developing a homegrown EV industry and to secure a supply of critical minerals necessary for renewable energy technologies, weaning the U.S. from its heavy reliance on imports.

Albemarle has received over $200 million in federal grants through Department of Defense and Department of Energy programs to secure domestic lithium production.

As the U.S. lithium industry expands, the primary setback is in permits and approvals. With some red tape removed from the process by the past two presidential administrations, the real work is in gaining the acceptance and active support of local stakeholders.

Winning community buy-in

The EV boom has grown from the transportation industry's goals to greatly reduce carbon emissions moving forward. With many subsequent energy metals extraction projects springing up around the country, local officials are anxious about the short-term environmental risks. Lithium hard-rock mining and processing are both environmental stressors that are historically carbon-heavy.

Albemarle is working hard to change that. The company has signed agreements with Caterpillar to collaborate on solutions to establish Kings Mountain as the first-ever zero-emissions lithium mine site in North America, utilizing next-generation battery-powered mining equipment and making Albemarle's North American-produced lithium available for use in Caterpillar battery production.

The two companies will also explore opportunities to collaborate on battery cell technology and recycling tech research and development.

"Beyond supplying infrastructure and materials, battery-powered Caterpillar machinery and potential improvements to cell technology will open up new possibilities for the future of sustainable mining," said Norris. "We look forward to replicating at Kings Mountain the same progress that we have made toward social and environmental responsibility at our Salar de Atacama operation, where we became the first lithium producer in the world to complete a third-party audit and publish our report through the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance's (IRMA) stringent standard."

In addition, Albemarle has also agreed to supply battery-grade lithium hydroxide for approximately three million Ford EV batteries in the future. The five-year supply agreement starts in 2026 and continues through 2030.

Albemarle and Ford will also collaborate to develop a solution for closed-loop lithium-ion battery recycling, with both companies committed to responsible sourcing and production and working together to ensure sustainability, transparency, and traceability in their supply chains.

As for Kings Mountain, Albemarle has an extensive community outreach campaign, including various community contributions, regular town hall meetings, public tours of the site and a dedicated office where residents can visit to ask questions regarding the mine proposal.

New mines, new perspectives

With neighbors of proposed mine projects raising concerns about pollution, soil erosion, and contaminating local water supplies, many residents remain skeptical about what a mine will mean for their community.

With increased electrification, automation, and cutting-edge technologies available to make mining safer, more efficient, and profitable, U.S.-based mining concerns have the tools to begin recovering community trust and support.

At Kings Mountain, Albemarle is implementing "IRMA-Ready" standards – a comprehensive operational playbook for mine sites in the exploration phase developed by NGOs, affected local communities and workers, emphasizing environmental stewardship and community engagement.

Albemarle estimates that Kings Mountain will become operational as soon as 2026, pending permitting.

 

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