What do operations look like at Albemarle’s Silver Peak plant?
The Silver Peak plant is one of the standout resources of the US. In Nevada, there are natural brines that have dissolved lithium out of sedimentary rocks and volcanic ash over tens of thousands of years, and there is a natural basin in which the dissolved lithium has concentrated. We pump the salty brine from below the surface into ponds, using a natural process to further concentrate and purify the lithium. By the time the lithium is processed through our pond system, it can be up to fifty times more concentrated. This is a very sustainable production approach as it relies on solar power without the need for other chemicals or additional energy. Lastly, we convert the lithium into lithium carbonate on site.
What is the current level of production at Silver Peak?
Silver Peak was in operation to produce lithium carbonate back in the 1960s, as it is now. Historically, Albemarle has produced around 3,000-3,500 metric tons of lithium carbonate per year. Albemarle is making a significant investment to double recent wellfield capacity to reach a sustainable production of approximately 7,500 metric tons per year of lithium carbonate equivalent, which if used to make batteries could support approximately 100,000 electric vehicles.
How do you see the applications of lithium evolving?
The headline news when it comes to lithium is its application in the electrification of transportation. For example, it can be used in fully electric or hybrid vehicles, e-bikes, and electrified buses. Yet its applications can be used on a larger scale in enhanced electric power grids. Introducing bulk energy storage batteries to the grid system can help stabilize fluctuations in conventional power generation as well as accelerate the adoption of renewable electricity generation.
Even deeper within the application space is the Internet of Things. Increasingly, we all enjoy having untethered devices in our homes and businesses that run on batteries. That said, the full extent of applications of lithium batteries is unknown, as its transformational power may lie in tools and sensors that have not yet been invented. With an emerging industry like batteries, as the supply chains become more efficient and prices fall, things we have not thought of today will be enabled by lithium-ion batteries that sell for less than $100 per kilowatt-hour — a target we will achieve on an industrial scale within the next few years.
How does the domestic lithium supply compare to the rest of the world?
Albemarle submitted a white paper to the US Department of Energy, outlining our view that the US is far behind Asia in terms of lithium, cathode active materials, and battery production. The US lacks an integrated supply chain that allows for a complete lithium ecosystem from minerals to market. As a country, we must catch up to our competitors by constructing our own ecosystem with a localized value chain. Albemarle is in a strong position to help, given our expansion plans at Silver Peak, and we hope to see more local investment. There is an incubator effect that occurs when you bring the elements together to create a localized market; it not only accelerates adoption, it also provokes invention and seeds potential industry disruption. The lithium-ion battery market is in its early days, so leaders today will shape how the industry advances.
How does Albemarle think about the carbon footprint of the lithium industry?
Studies indicate that although the upfront emissions associated with manufacturing electronic vehicles are higher than combustion engine vehicles, the benefits of avoided emissions are many times greater over the use life. It is important that as an industry and society we are asking these questions about sustainability now, rather than waiting to react in the future. It is worth highlighting the annualized benefits of producing lithium to enable electric vehicles: for every ton of greenhouse gas generated in the production of lithium, tailpipe emissions are reduced by 50 tons. It is a tradeoff that as a society we must consider seriously.
Sustainability is foundational to Albemarle, and the company is investing in technologies to use water more efficiently and transitioning to cleaner forms of energy. Furthermore, our goal is to increase the recovery of lithium for the same amount of energy and chemistry used. Getting better at maximizing our lithium recovery makes both good environmental and business sense -- using less money and energy to do more.