CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A region west of Charlotte that was once a mother lode of lithium, the increasingly vital metal that powers cellphones, Teslas and cordless tools, may soon be one again.
A recently formed company, Piedmont Lithium Limited, is applying for permits to launch an open-pit lithium mining operation that it says would be the only one of its type in the United States.
Piedmont plans to extract lithium from mineral deposits in Gaston County, 25 miles west of Charlotte, in what geologists call the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt. Mines in the belt supplied most of the world’s lithium from the 1950s through the 1980s, before producers turned to cheaper deposits in South America and Australia. Two global companies still process lithium in the area.
Why the renewed interest in mining North Carolina’s deposits?
“At the end of the day, it’s all driven by the rapid demand growth for lithium,” said Piedmont CEO Keith Phillips.
While lithium can be used to make ceramics and glass, lubricants and other products, more than half of the global production last year went into batteries, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says. The rapid rise of electric vehicles accounts for much of the battery demand.
Lithium’s growing importance was reflected in a Trump administration executive order last May. The soft metal was among 35 “critical minerals” for which the government wants to boost domestic production and reduce its heavy reliance on imports.
“Lithium-supply security has become a top priority for technology companies in the United States and Asia,” the USGS said in a February report. But while the United States holds an estimated 11 percent of the planet’s lithium resources, according to the report, it produces only a tiny amount of what it needs.
Imports, mostly from Argentina and Chile, nearly doubled between 2014 and 2018 and provided more than half of U.S. consumption, the USGS report said. Outside the U.S., worldwide lithium production rose 22 percent last year and 74 percent in 2017.
A Nevada company that extracts lithium from underground brine deposits produced the only U.S. lithium in 2018. Piedmont Lithium says it would be the nation’s only hard-rock mine, extracting lithium from a mineral, spodumene, that is found in rock called pegmatite.
Piedmont Lithium was founded by an Australian mining incubator, the Apollo Group, whose New York office learned of North Carolina’s lithium mining history, Phillips said. Piedmont’s chief geologist, Lamont Leatherman, is a native of Lincolnton, not far from the mine sites.
The USGS estimated in the 1970s that the area holds 750 million tons of lithium, Phillips said. Piedmont believes mines that operated from the 1950s to about 1990 recovered about 50 million tons, and that at least 18 million tons remain — enough to mine for at least 13 years.
The company says North Carolina is also attractive because of its low labor costs, corporate tax rate and lack of state mining royalties.
“The indications are that Piedmont faces few barriers to its goal of a being a low-cost, U.S. spodumene-lithium producer — a unique position — in a rapidly inflating market for the battery mineral,” Mining Journal reported last April.
Piedmont has the money to pay for its upcoming work, which includes more drilling to fully document the estimated ore reserves, Phillips said. The publicly traded company still needs to raise money for a detailed feasibility study and to build the $130 million ore processing plant that will separate and concentrate the lithium.
The company hopes to break ground on its mine and processing plant by the end of this year and be in full production by early 2021, Phillips said. The company hopes to build, within a few years, a $340 million plant to turn lithium concentrate into a chemical form, lithium hydroxide, that is used in batteries and other applications.
More than 100 jobs would be created for both the mine and processing plant, and the future chemical plant would bring the total to more than 300, Phillips said. Donny Hicks, Gaston County’s economic development director, placed a lower estimate on the number of jobs, saying more than 50 employees are expected in initial phases.
“From our perspective, we are moving as swiftly as we can do so responsibly,” Phillips said. “We think the lithium market will grow remarkably for at least a couple of decades.”
“A lot of time and money”
Two global companies already have deep roots in North Carolina lithium.
Livent, a recent spinoff of FMC, has a manufacturing plant and research hub in Bessemer City and an office in Charlotte. A global supplier of specialty chemicals, Albemarle, has its corporate headquarters in Charlotte and a battery-grade lithium hydroxide plant in Kings Mountain.
The N.C. Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources approved an Albemarle US request in 2017 to allow exploratory drilling on 3.5 acres of its Kings Mountain-East mine in Cleveland County. The following year, the division approved exploratory drilling on 54 acres of the Kings Mountain-West site.
Albemarle told shareholders in February that it had completed a drilling program at its hard-rock site in Kings Mountain “to more fully characterize that opportunity,” spokeswoman Hailey Quinn said. Albemarle had said last December that Kings Mountain could be the site of future expansion but projects in Australia were current priorities.
Two companies are building battery plants for electric vehicles in the Southeast: SK Innovations in Georgia, and Daimler in Alabama.
“Right now, Piedmont is the primary [mining] player in that area,” said Hicks, the county economic development director. “They’ve spent a lot of time and money.” Piedmont’s presence, if permits are approved, would lure more companies in the battery-supply chain, he added.
The open-pit mine it plans, similar to a quarry, will be as much as 500 feet deep. Blasting will occur up to once a day, Piedmont says.