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Miner Piedmont unveils plans for new lithium refinery under pressure for domestic EV supply chains




Piedmont Lithium announced Thursday that it plans to build a new lithium refinery in Tennessee, as the United States rushes to develop domestic supply chains for commodities critical to the energy transition.

Thursday’s announcement comes on the heels of the largest climate funding package in US history, which President Joe Biden signed into law in August. The package includes incentives to start domestic supply chains for electric vehicle batteries, although Piedmont said plans for the facility were in development before the Inflation Reduction Act.

Now that the company has selected the location in McMinn County, it will begin the process of securing the necessary permits, which could be lengthy. The company is nevertheless betting on construction starting in 2023, with production starting in 2025.

When fully operational, the facility will produce 30,000 tons of lithium per year, making it the largest lithium refining facility in the United States, according to the company. Piedmont said it will produce enough material to power roughly 500,000 electric vehicles annually.

Piedmont currently has no active mines in the US, so once the facility is up and running it will process spodumene concentrate from Piedmont̵[ads1]7;s international operations in Quebec and Ghana.

Eventually, the company hopes to use lithium that is mined domestically. The company has plans for a mine as well as another facility in North Carolina, although CEO Keith Phillips said that is challenging from a permitting perspective, since both the mine and the facility are in the same location.

Albemarle operates the only meaningful lithium mine in the United States, located in Silver Peak, Nevada. Additionally, only 2.1% of lithium is refined in the United States, according to data from Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. China dominates the industry, refining more than half of the global lithium supply.

Should Piedmont’s mine and facility in North Carolina secure the necessary permits, however, the company expects to double lithium production, and the company delivers one million electric vehicles per year.

Piedmont Lithium’s announcement also comes as automakers rush toward large electric vehicle fleets. According to some forecasts, there simply will not be enough lithium to meet demand for the foreseeable future. The International Energy Agency estimates that to meet the targets set in the Paris Agreement, demand for lithium will grow by over 40 times by 2040.

Building new mines takes years. They are capital intensive and can face permitting challenges. There are also those who are opposed to new mines, who argue that the world should instead focus on existing production.

Piedmont’s Phillips noted that in the past year alone, $33 billion has been announced for electric vehicle battery manufacturing facilities in the United States, which will require 500,000 tons of lithium annually.

“That’s more than all the lithium hydroxide currently being produced in the world, so clearly the industry is facing a critical resource shortage,” he told CNBC. “Anyone who can produce material to supply this market — especially domestically in the United States — will be in a favored position.”

Piedmont plans to invest about $600 million in developing the Tennessee plant.



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