Piedmont Lithium announced Thursday that it plans to build a new lithium refining plant in Tennessee as the US rushes to develop domestic supply chains for raw materials critical to the energy transition.
Thursday’s announcement comes on the heels of the largest climate finance package in US history, signed by President Joe Biden in August. The package includes incentives to jump-start domestic supply chains for electric vehicle batteries, although Piedmont said plans for the plant were under development before the Inflation Reduction Act.
Now that the company has selected the McMinn County location, it will begin to obtain the necessary permits, which can take a long time. However, the company is aiming for construction from 2023, with production from 2025.
When fully operational, the plant will produce 30,000 tons of lithium per year, making it the largest lithium refining facility in the US, the company says. Piemonte said it will produce enough material to supply about 500,000 electric vehicles annually.
Piemonte currently has no active mines in the US, so once the facility is operational it will process spodumene concentrate from Piemonte’s international operations in Quebec and Ghana.
Ultimately, the company hopes to use lithium that is mined domestically. The company has plans for a mine and another plant in North Carolina, though CEO Keith Phillips said it’s challenging from a licensing perspective as both the mine and plant are on the same site.
Albemarle operates the only meaningful lithium mine in the US, in Silver Peak, Nevada. In addition, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence data, only 2.1% of lithium is refined in the US. China dominates the industry, refining more than half of the global lithium supply.
Should the Piedmont mine and plant in North Carolina receive the required permits, the company predicts that lithium production will double, with the company supplying one million electric vehicles annually.
The announcement of Piedmont Lithium also comes as automakers rush to massive electric vehicle fleets. According to some predictions, there will simply not be enough lithium to meet demand in the near future. The International Energy Agency estimates that lithium demand will grow more than 40-fold by 2040 to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Building new mines takes years. They are capital intensive and can face licensing challenges. There are also opponents of new mines, who argue that the world should instead focus on existing production.
Phillips of Piedmont noted that $33 billion has been announced in the past year for electric vehicle manufacturing plants in the US, which require 500,000 tons of lithium annually.
“That’s more than all the lithium hydroxide currently produced in the world, so it’s clear 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 privileged position.”
Piemonte plans to invest approximately $600 million in the development of the Tennessee facility.