Perspectives: Domestic Critical Mineral Supplies are the Gatekeepers of our Clean Energy Future

By Megan O’Connor, CEO & CO-founder at Nth Cycle

The energy transition that we need in North America to preserve our world requires pure and plentiful critical minerals, significant domestic manufacturing capabilities, and a robust, resilient, and secure supply chain. It also requires leadership; something we’ve become accustomed to as Americans throughout our history. Sadly, we haven’t really led in the climate fight – and it’s time to change that. Today we have an opportunity to lead the fight through the production of lithium-ion batteries.

President Biden recently directed the Department of Energy to enact policies which focus on a long-neglected priority in America’s efforts to transition to a clean energy economy: scaling up and securing a leadership position in lithium-ion battery (LiB) manufacturing. Lithium-ion batteries are the engine of our clean energy future as an essential component of powering electric vehicles and enabling a 100% clean electric grid through utility and distributed scale energy storage.  

Empowering an electrified future – both in our vehicles and homes – means a massive investment in batteries, almost exclusively lithium-ion batteries (LiBs). Unfortunately, US-based companies manufacture only 10% of all batteries produced, which puts us in the back seat, much in the same way we lost the race in innovating and producing PV solar panels and components, years ago. Today we lag far behind China, Japan, and Korea in market share for production of the components, separators, and solutions required to produce LiBs. However, this is starting to change. For example, GM announced last year a $35 billion investment in electric vehicle production domestically, including battery manufacturing and the DOE is also expanding its policies for loan guarantees under its Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, including battery cells and packs for use in electric vehicles. This week at CES we’re already seeing even more EV announcements.

Raw Materials Are the Lithium-ion Battery Gatekeeper

But LiB manufacturing capability can’t be increased with the flip of a switch. The US must also increase the scope, capability, resilience and cleanliness of its battery manufacturing supply chain, that means easy access to supplies of lithium, cobalt, and nickel. This is no simple order; we’ve seen a similar shortfall during the Covid pandemic with respect to semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, and personal protective equipment among other products, following the erosion and offshoring of our domestic manufacturing and materials supply capabilities over the last 50 years. When we finally developed some domestic capacity to produce N95s last year, it still required importing fabrics and machines. 

China and Africa currently dominate the critical mineral supply chain. Critical minerals are often dug, by hand, from African soil by Chinese companies, then transported to China for refinement and production into LiBs. In fact, rare earth metal mining has played an important role in the rise and strength of China’s economy, but at a cost: the city at the center of the industry is horribly polluted and home to what one journalist has called a “dystopian lake.”

We have the reserves of critical minerals domestically to create our own leadership supply, but the technologies required to mine, recycle and refine these critical minerals are dirty. So dirty that many states have strict regulations that forbid heavy use of these smelting and acid bath processes (pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy, respectively).

If we’re to succeed, we need new and clean technologies that meet environmental regulations and simultaneously provide us with supply chain cost advantages. Like everything else with this transition to a cleaner world, we’re depending on an age-old and certainly outdated approach for energy and mining delivery.  Today’s processes for refining metals, pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy, utilize large, dirty furnaces, and harmful acids and solvents that create massive hazardous chemical waste that can violate stringent U.S. environmental regulations. There are already alternatives to this process, including electro-extraction, which uses electrical currents to extract critical metals by filtering a mineral-rich solution through specially designed filters that offer consistently increased purity and yield. If we are to be true to the goal, we need to ensure the medicine for a decarbonized world is as clean as the cure.

The energy transition that we need globally to preserve our world requires pure and plentiful critical minerals, significant domestic manufacturing capabilities, and a robust, resilient, and secure supply chain. It also requires leadership; something we’ve become accustomed to as Americans throughout our history. Sadly, we haven’t really led in the climate fight – and it’s time to change that. This is our opportunity to lead the effort  to supply the tools of change with the vast materials and resources we need for a transformation the world so desperately needs.



Photo by Shane McLendon on Unsplash

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