GASTON COUNTY, N.C.—The rolling hills of North Carolina’s Piedmont region are an unlikely setting for a next-generation technology transformation that has become a national priority.
Lamont Leatherman, a 55-year-old geologist who grew up here, is its unlikely instigator. A decade ago, he combed the woods near his childhood home in search of lithium, a soft, white metal he believed would be crucial to the burgeoning industry of electric vehicles.
Now, the company he helped found five years ago to explore the region, Piedmont Lithium Ltd. , has deployed drilling rigs throughout the 2,300 acres it owns or controls to map out deposits. The company is preparing to launch one of the first big new lithium mines in the U.S. in decades.
Lithium is an increasingly crucial material, central to the rechargeable batteries that power cellphones and electric cars. These batteries are becoming a disruptive force in the energy sector as well.
Demand, especially from vehicles, is expected to surge, and controlling the resources that power them is the 21st-century version of oil security. For now, the U.S. remains largely reliant on China and other countries for lithium, having fallen far behind in mining and refining it.
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