The U.S. push to challenge China’s dominance in the production and sale of electric vehicles has at least one weak link: Most of the raw materials needed to make the batteries are dug elsewhere.
Both Chinese and U.S.-based companies have invested heavily in lithium mining projects in Chile, Australia and Argentina, some of the world’s top producing nations. But unlike the U.S., Chinese companies have also invested at home, with the Asian nation producing almost eight times more lithium domestically than the U.S.
The raw materials gap will be discussed at a May 2 meeting in Washington expected to draw government officials, carmakers, mining companies and consultants on the need for streamlining the U.S. permit process for new lithium projects and stockpiling purchases.
“It has been decades since a lithium refining facility has been built in the United States,” said Eric Norris, the lithium president of North Carolina-based Albemarle Corp., the world’s largest producer of the mineral. “Any new project will take time to develop, as the regulatory bodies determine required permits, potential community impact, etc.”
Boosting local production of the raw minerals would be the first step toward building out a rechargeable battery industry that’s so far been concentrated in Asia. The U.S. controls only about 13 percent of the global lithium cell production capacity, with no growth expected, according to BloombergNEF. China now controls about two-thirds of that industry and BNEF is forecasting it could grow to about 73 percent by 2021.
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