The U.S. Can Win the Global Race for Raw Materials Needed in EVs, It Won't Be Pretty

The point of no return has already been reached. We won’t go back to internal combustion engine cars. The path ahead is clear: we’re aiming for all-electric personal and commercial transport. Here’s how the U.S. could stay ahead and even win the fight for raw materials – the rare metals that replaced the global interest in oil. Some people won’t be happy.
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Electric vehicles (EVs) are cool in almost any aspect. It has never been easier to quickly accelerate from 0 mph to 62 mph (0-100 kph). The absence of an engine guarantees a smoother ride thanks to no explosions happening under the hood. The zero-emission cars can be charged at home and, depending on where you live, you can also enjoy tax credits or other financial benefits for buying and using them. There’s also the added benefit of not contributing to the pollution of the city, suburb, town, or village you live in.

Let’s just agree these types of vehicles have become pretty cool nowadays. Besides not having a global network of Supercharger-like stations, there’s literally only one reason left for you to deny yourself an EV: the price point. Besides the Dacia Spring, that’s for Europe, Africa, and some parts of Asia, there aren’t many cheap new all-electric cars on sale today. Furthermore, Tesla’s just too attractive of an option to ignore, thanks to its continuously expanding charging network, simple construction, and advanced software.

But others are catching up. Rivian, Lucid, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Nissan, Volvo, Canoo, Toyota, GM, BMW, Audi, Porsche, and even little-known brands like VinFast are making a run for it. They want a piece of the pie after Elon Musk’s Tesla decided to fight the conservative auto industry. If you didn’t figure it out yet: yes, he won!

But these are just manufacturers that are going at it strong in the U.S. The rest of the world is also looking towards electrifying transport. There are deadlines set in place to phase out the internal combustion engine in many other countries or major cities, and everyone just wants to be ready with a good enough lineup of cars.

Things are heating up

These automakers will need batteries for their cars – a lot of them. This means only one thing: the real battle for resources commences. Up until now, this was a not-that-interesting competition. Currently, it’s turning into a full-fledged confrontation. Countries must work together with key players from the auto industry to secure these much-needed metals that are found in cars’ batteries and motors.

The U.S. has the means to be a global winner and even defeat major producers of rare earths like Australia or China. But it won’t be easy or pretty.

Surprising or not, it’s only been a few decades since Li-ion batteries reached commercial feasibility.

Portable devices made this energy storage popular. That’s why it has been in continuous development since smartphones replaced cameras, CD players, and other similar gadgets. But nothing comes close to what the auto industry has meant for the evolution of the battery.

Everybody wants packs of these Li-ion units filled with thousands or even tens of thousands of cells. That’s why you keep hearing about billions of dollars being poured into this sector. LG, for example, gave up entirely on making smartphones to focus on battery production and development. Universities keep researching ways of making these units more reliable. New companies are coming up with the sole purpose of recycling used batteries and giving them another shot at working again, either as a backup plan for local or regional electric grids or to be installed in chargers.

So, it’s no wonder that different entities and some countries are looking to establish their supremacy in this sector. It has the potential to create another economic boom and be a catalyst for new jobs.

The U.S. should want to be among the top three global producers of EVs. Fortunately, the general agreement is that America would like to spearhead this industry’s development. Besides the private sector acting on its own, the federal government should also bring on a strategy that’ll make the U.S. a big producer of metals like lithium, nickel, and cobalt that are needed in batteries. And it can do that – by destroying local environments for the benefit of larger ones.

Before you automatically assume this wouldn’t be right, I’d like to remind you that mining is vital for the EV industry. Without these rare earths, batteries and motors couldn’t be made with the current technology that we have. As previously mentioned, nobody suggested it would be pretty.

For example, the UK decided to ban the sale of new internal combustion engine (ICE) cars from 2030. Gradually, every passenger vehicle or van will become all-electric. To replace 31.5 million cars won’t be an easy feat and will certainly require a lot of money and raw materials. More precisely, we’re looking at over 518,086,316 lb (235,000 metric tons) of lithium carbonate, according to S&P Global. The investments needed for the national electric grid are another topic altogether.

We must also consider the fact that Germany, Iceland, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, and Israel have also decided to ban ICE vehicles in the next ten years. United States’ current administration is eyeing a ban on selling new fossil fuel-powered cars in 2035 but a final decision has yet to be taken.

In the meantime, there’s something else the White House and Congress should focus on.

Sacrifice local, win global?

Nevada’s Thacker Pass is situated in a remote region that requires a lot of effort to live in. For example, the nearest store is almost 35 miles (56 kilometers) away. That’s why you’ll see just trucks or farm equipment passing on the few roads that exist from time to time. But this area hides a secret – it’s the largest lithium carbonate deposit the U.S. has. It could single-handedly propel America into the top global producers of this important (and soon to become precious) metal.

Getting a mine up and running there is challenging. There’s little water availability, and extracting lithium carbonate from the ground requires a lot of dihydrogen monoxide. Water is pumped into the ground to extract the metal and is also used for the selection process and to keep dust glued to the floor.

Companies could strike a deal with farmers, but that would mean the end of harvesting or growing animals like chickens, turkeys, and other birds or cattle. Mining would also destroy the entire environment over time in Thacker Pass.

You’d think this is a new idea, but the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish & Wildlife Service has already looked at this area as a potential mining project and spent over $250,000 to bring some interesting aspects to light. Their report showed that an investment in securing a new lithium operation here would damage the underground waters by poisoning them with arsenic. This would take centuries to fix.

Establishing a big mining operation there also means breaking off a link between two important regions for wildlife. Indigenous tribes are as well concerned about this potential project and have already taken action to present their opposition. Unfortunately, the courts have already rejected their claims.

As we can see, just by scratching the surface with this lithium carbonate mining idea, nothing looks like it would benefit anyone.

That’s why the U.S., auto companies, the public, investors, and other relevant stakeholders of the battery-powered future should come together and discuss what should be done here. Is America condemned to permanently import such vital metals from Argentina, Chile, and China to protect a place like Thacker Pass? Should companies be allowed to destroy this area in Northern Nevada to make EVs cheaper for U.S. drivers and businesses?

Nothing comes easy anymore, but decision-makers should start consultations as soon as possible on the matter and decide if destroying a local habitat would be acceptable to further improve the quality of life everywhere else in the U.S.

There’s a clear need for action, but we’re not in the 1950s anymore. All parties involved should have their say, and nobody should be left behind in the race for an all-electric future.
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About the author: Florin Amariei
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Car shows on TV and his father's Fiat Tempra may have been Florin's early influences, but nowadays he favors different things, like the power of an F-150 Raptor. He'll never be able to ignore the shape of a Ferrari though, especially a yellow one.
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