The CEO of a Tesla-backed battery startup explains why he's mining for cheap lithium in North Carolina

  • The battery supply chain is expected to grow with the new demand for EVs.
  • Lithium, the key material in most EV batteries, has gotten expensive and difficult to mine.
  • Piedmont is one startup rethinking how to mine lithium and make batteries.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As the world prepares for the coming wave of electric vehicles and automakers hunt for affordable materials to deliver them, the competition in the battery market and its supply chain is heating up.

Much of the firepower is focused on lithium. The metal is a primary material in EV batteries, but comes with a host of problems. It can be dangerous and environmentally harmful to mine. Digging it up has negative socio-economic repercussions in the most lithium-rich places like Chile, Argentina, and Australia. Moreover, the mining process can be quite expensive, especially when the distance between the mines and the battery-makers spans over oceans.

No surprise, then, that new ways of mining, using, and recycling lithium are cropping up, from a variety of established companies as well as startups. 

“I think we will see significant innovations in mining,” Lawrence Burns, an industry consultant and former General Motors head of research and development, told Insider. “When there’s a need out there, and the engineers see the opportunity to meet that need, you get an explosion in innovation. This is occurring around how to mine lithium given the demand for EV batteries.”

One startup partaking in that explosion is Piedmont Lithium.  With $10.8 million in funding, plus a five-year sales agreement with Tesla, the company plans to mine lithium in the United States rather than abroad, cutting transportation costs for American battery manufacturers and automakers.

“It all comes back to location. Being located where we are in North Carolina, we have big cost advantages on most other producers,” said CEO Keith Phillips. “From an operating perspective we should be very competitive, because we have a high-grade deposit in a unique location. We’re going to do everything in North Carolina, within a 20-mile radius of our quarrying operation.”

The stateside location isn’t the only thing that Phillips believes gives his outfit an edge. Piedmont plans to use the second quarter of 2021 to internally inspect its carbon footprint by gauging its water usage, land usage, and impacts of its transportation methods. It has made a commitment to mining and using lithium in the most environmentally friendly way possible, making efforts to reduce its carbon footprint by using solar energy and switching its diesel fleet of trucks to electric conveyor systems.

“We believe we will be the lowest carbon footprint lithium producer in the world. And we will achieve that by using solar to a great extent,” Phillips said. “North Carolina is the number two solar state in the country after California and we are working with a partner to bring solar onto our grounds to fully fuel our concentrate plant. No one else in the world is doing that, currently.”

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