In high-tech Utah, is lithium mining the industry of the future?
Between catastrophic drought in the West, seemingly endless wildfires, and New York City underwater, the last two years have illuminated the stark realities of Earth’s rapidly changing climate. But earlier this year, a stunning report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) awakened world leaders to yet another difficult truth: the world simply does not have enough lithium to meet the emissions targets scientists believe are necessary to prevent the worst effects of climate change.
“Today, the data shows a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realizing those ambitions,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said in a statement marking the report’s release. “Left unaddressed, these potential vulnerabilities could make global progress toward a clean energy future slower and more costly―and therefore hamper international efforts to tackle climate change. This is what energy security looks like in the 21st century.”
According to the report, demand for lithium will grow more than any other mineral, increasing 40 times by 2040 if the world achieves the goals of the Paris Agreement. However, existing mines and projects currently in development will meet just half of that demand.
Utah, thanks to its unique geography, may be able to help meet that demand—and at least four companies have already announced their intent to begin lithium extraction here. Once too costly to extract, new technology has made Utah’s lithium accessible for the first time, potentially unlocking an essentially inexhaustible supply of lithium in the Great Salt Lake. The state’s fraught history with mining may be the resource’s only remaining barrier.
Utah’s natural lithium mine
Sometimes lumped in with so-called “rare-earth” minerals, lithium is actually relatively abundant. The trouble, experts say, is accessing and concentrating it. Minute quantities of lithium are scattered throughout soils across the globe, but in most cases, the lithium is so diffuse that attempting to mine it would never be sufficiently efficient.
Utah is a natural exception to this rule. Before it dried up 12,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville swept lithium from the surrounding rocks and concentrated the mineral in its sediment. That concentrated source of lithium remains present in Bonneville remnants around the state, including the Great Salt Lake, the Bonneville Salt Flats, and Sevier Lake. Underground reservoirs of saltwater brines that contain lithium are also scattered across southeastern Utah, according to Andrew Rupke, a senior minerals geologist for the Utah Geological Survey.
“In order to get these brines, you have an evaporative process working,” Rupke says. “That concentrates ions in the brine, and that increases in concentration as you evaporate more and more water. Lithium tends to stay in the brine—you have to evaporate everything before you get lithium depositing as a solid.”
It’s not clear exactly where Utah’s lithium came from before it leached out of the surrounding soils and into the state’s waterways, Rupke says. Specific kinds of glassy volcanic rocks are thought to be the main source. As in water, lithium is one of the last elements to drop out of volcanic magma as it cools. When magma cools slowly—usually because it’s still underground—it forms crystal-laden rocks such as pegmatite that retain higher concentrations of lithium and other rare minerals. These intrusive volcanic rock formations are common in Utah, and may be the reason local streams and lakes amass lithium over time, Rupke says.
Utah’s brines aren’t necessarily the most lithium-rich in the world. That claim to fame would go to places such as Australia, which mines the majority of the world’s lithium according to the IEA, as well as Chile and China. But the real reason Utah’s lithium has remained untouched all these thousands of years isn’t because of the more moderate concentrations present here, Rupke says. It’s because the technology needed to extract it hasn’t existed.
The problem with Utah’s lithium is that it tends to be mixed in with other minerals, especially magnesium, according to Joe Havasi, director of natural resources for Compass Minerals, a mineral extraction company with operations on the north arm of the Great Salt Lake near Ogden. The company technically already extracts lithium with the other minerals it harvests. The problem, Havasi says, is figuring out how to separate the lithium into a pure product that can be sold. At least, that was the problem, until recently.
For the past three years, Compass Minerals has been piloting a type of technology called Direct Lithium Extraction, a process where various chemical compounds bind to the lithium, allowing it to be removed from mineral-rich brines more easily. Once the lithium is isolated, a second chemical is added to release it from the chemical bonds and produce pure, battery-grade lithium.
With this technology, Compass Minerals believes it can begin producing 20,000-25,000 metric tons of lithium annually with minimal changes to its existing operations by 2025.
Compass Minerals isn’t the only Utah company pursuing lithium. US Magnesium, a minerals extractor on the west side of the Great Salt Lake, began selling lithium extracted from the company’s stockpile of byproduct salts this past August. Global Battery Metals acquired a property on the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover this March; saltwater brines beneath the property were found to contain high concentrations of lithium and magnesium. Anson Resources is also exploring lithium extraction from subterranean brines located in the Paradox Basin in the southeastern corner of the state.
“We’re still in the process of scoping out the full workforce requirements,” says Ryan Barlett, chief strategy officer for Compass Minerals. “But there absolutely will be an impact on jobs. There will be an economic impact to the state … and it will give the state and the region the notoriety that it’s providing materials for the EV industry. The economic impact, direct and perception, could be quite large for the state.”
Ghosts of NIMBY
With the rise of electric vehicles and renewable energy, there is no doubt that demand for lithium in the future will exceed current production, creating new opportunities for those looking to get into the market. According to the IEA, the average electric car requires six times more minerals to construct than a conventional car; a wind turbine uses nine times as many minerals as a gas-fired power plant.
But the explosion of interest since 2019 is likely also based on current circumstances, according to Paul Saunders, president of the Energy Innovation Reform Project, a nonprofit that promotes research and polity solutions that ensure the reliability and security of clean energy. Supply chain disruptions in the wake of the Covid pandemic have spiked the price of lithium and exacerbated tensions with China, which controls 50-70 percent of the world’s capacity to refine and process lithium. Even lithium extracted in Utah at US Magnesium is currently sold to Japan, Korea, and China for processing and manufacturing.
Given the political situation and the demonstrated fragility of global supply chains, a resurgence of interest in—and possibly subsidies for—domestic mining and manufacturing is quite possible, Saunders says. “I expect the supply chain issue to be a longer-term concern,” Saunders says. “Certainly I think the pandemic is what brought it home to a lot of policymakers. But I think the real driver is partly geopolitical, and partly a rebirth of political focus on domestic manufacturing.”
But inevitably, Saunders says, this growing emphasis on localized supply chains is going to collide with the social and environmental movements of the last several decades. Much of the reason why China and other nations control so much of the world’s mineral resources, he says, is not because they had more mineral deposits to begin with. It’s because Americans, since the 1970s, have rejected mining as a dirty, unsavory industry, throwing up social barriers that have largely relegated mining to regions with less stringent regulatory oversight.
“With Tesla making batteries in California and planning to scale that up, from what I understand… transportation from Utah is much cheaper than putting [lithium] on a ship and sending it from Africa,” Saunders says. For mining, at least, the path of least resistance isn’t always the path of lowest financial costs.
This is the double-edged sword that Utah—or any potential lithium-producing region—is going to face, Saunders says. Particularly in a state like Utah, which has had a late but fierce response to the environmental movement, lithium could face rejection by communities that don’t see the extractive industry as having the potential for the high-tech, high-paying jobs they desire. And that could relegate lithium production to historically disadvantaged communities, where oversight is likely to be lax.
“There’s a tendency among some to take the view that since sunlight and wind are free, solar and wind power don’t have many associated costs. And as a practical matter, they do,” Saunders says. “Mitigating climate change is an important goal, but everyone who is thinking about these questions should be aware of the fact that it will require a lot more mining. That has to happen somewhere, and wherever it happens, it will be in someone’s community.”
Utah’s history with mining hasn’t done a lot to endear the state to the industry. Conflict between miners and settlers seeking a more agrarian way of life broke out almost as soon as the state was settled. Utah became one of the first states in the US to regulate air quality in the early 1900s in direct response to pollution from the state’s burgeoning mining and smelting industry. Today, components of Kennecott’s copper mining operations in Utah rank as the first and second-largest sources of pollution in the state of Utah, according to the EPA’s toxic release inventory. US Magnesium ranks as the state’s fourth-largest polluter.
US Magnesium and other companies that would like to produce lithium in Utah in the future are currently operating under temporary agreements with the state, according to Jamie Barnes, sovereign lands program administrator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands. Because much of Utah’s lithium exists within the Great Salt Lake—which is technically owned by the state of Utah like a state park—companies that wish to extract minerals or other resources from it must pay Barnes’ division a royalty. But currently, there is no established royalty for lithium. That, Barnes says, will be subject to future rule-making—a process Barnes assures will take any potential environmental impact into account.
Havasi believes the impact of lithium mining on the lake will be minimal. Because the lithium can be extracted from brines already collected by the company, Compass Minerals won’t need to expand its physical footprint or build extensive new infrastructure to harvest the resource. On top of this, he says, the company uses wind and solar power to drive the evaporation processes it uses.
Clean energy for the win-win-win
Even the lithium itself is a sort of renewable resource where the Great Salt Lake is concerned, Havasi says. Data from Compass Minerals suggests that streams and runoff currently flowing into the lake wash some 1 million tons of salts and minerals, inclusive of lithium, into it each year, acting to replenish some of the 25,000 tons the company hopes to extract.
“We’re excited about [our process] because it’s not a mine,” Havasi says. “We see it as a much more environmentally friendly approach compared to what others might be looking at.”
Even Lynn de Freitas, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Friends of Great Salt Lake, sees some potential environmental benefits that could come from mining lithium in Utah. Any mineral extraction on the lake, she explains, can only take place if there is still water in the lake.
“Water is the lifeblood of the lake for so many reasons,” she says. “And everyone understands that when the lake gets low like it is now, there’s a little of the ‘eek’ factor going on because one of the things Compass had to do in the past was extend their intake canals to bring in brine. Industry gets it. They are always going to be champions for making sure we have water for that system.”
And while the numbers have yet to be drawn up, Barnes sees a potential financial benefit for the lake as well. Any royalties collected from the mineral companies are, by law, deposited in a special restricted fund and can only be spent on projects and initiatives that benefit the state’s land resources. Future royalties from the lake could go toward financing the development of a new comprehensive management plan to replace the state’s current, outdated plans, Barnes says.
With potential environmental benefits—rather than tradeoffs—on the table, and its ability to continuously replenish its own lithium supplies, Havasi believes lithium extraction on the Great Salt Lake may represent the ultimate win-win-win situation. Getting the industry off the ground and solidifying Utah’s place as a clean energy leader, he says, is just a matter of time.
“It’s exciting because it’s a new sector, and it’s clean technology,” Havasi says. “It’s exciting because we can leverage existing infrastructure to bring this to market quickly. This is something that can happen very soon, and I think with clean tech, the sky’s the limit for the potential in Utah.”