U.S. Struggles with Sustainable Li-ion Battery Supply Chain

 - May 1, 2023, 9:31 AM
Archer’s electric two-seat Maker eVTOL technology demonstrator achieved wing-borne cruise flight in December of 2022.

Electric aircraft developers promise to revolutionize the aviation industry by replacing gas-guzzling turbine engines with more environmentally friendly, battery-powered propulsion systems that produce zero emissions while boasting significantly lower operating costs. 

While a handful of companies like Eviation are working to build and certify electric commuter airplanes, other companies like Joby and Archer plan to introduce electric fleets consisting of thousands of much smaller aircraft that can take off and land vertically, known as eVTOL aircraft. Those eVTOL aircraft, which are scheduled to begin operations as early as 2025, can carry groups of four to six people or cargo payloads on short flights of a couple hundred miles, allowing passengers to fly over traffic jams in urban settings and reach their destinations in record time. 

Joby has been flight testing its all-electric vehicle unmanned with plans for a piloted flight by year end.

Both the aviation and automotive industries, as well as the transportation industry at large, are increasingly trending toward electric vehicles to reduce humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels and make transportation more sustainable. However, the electric batteries on which these industries depend may not be as sustainable as they may seem. 

The Lithium Battery Boom

Global demand for batteries is expected to skyrocket over the next decade. According to a 2021 report from the Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries (FCAB), the worldwide lithium market is projected to grow by a factor of five to 10 by 2030. Most batteries used for electric aircraft, EVs, consumer electronics, and defense applications are made using resources that are primarily produced overseas, including lithium, nickel, cobalt, and graphite. 

The U.S. gets most of its lithium-ion batteries from China, the third-largest lithium producer in the world, as well as from South Korea and Japan. While the U.S. has recently introduced some initiatives to increase mining and production of lithium and other critical materials used in lithium-ion batteries, the amounts produced within the U.S. will likely not be able to keep up with the nation’s demand in the foreseeable future. This leaves the U.S. increasingly reliant on Chinese exports, which some experts deem to be a national security risk. 

“I think our industry has unique needs when it comes to supply chain. If you think of the magnets that are needed and the batteries that are needed for electric aircraft, that is very much going to be an issue that needs to be addressed for the long term,” Allie Cloyes, who works in government relations at the Vermont-based electric aircraft developer Beta Technologies, said last fall during Honeywell’s first Air Mobility Summit in Washington, D.C. 

“We'd love to see some meaningful action from the administration to shore up a Western supply chain. I think that can address parallel risks of obviously supply chain shortage, but also reliance on China for a lot of these materials,” Cloyes added. “It’s an issue of national security.”

Although the U.S. relies almost entirely on foreign imports of lithium-ion batteries, the country does actually produce some of its own lithium. Lithium reserves can be found across the U.S., but there is only one active lithium mine in the entire country, located in Silver Peak, Nevada. Other U.S. lithium reserves, including those in California, Nevada, Utah, Arkansas, and North Carolina, remain untapped. Much of the lithium and other metals that are mined in the U.S. are exported to other countries to be processed and made into products like lithium-ion batteries. 

According to the FCAB, the U.S. holds 3.6 percent of the known global lithium reserves—an amount that could satisfy the global lithium demand in 2020 for about eight years. Meanwhile, the price of lithium has increased more than five-fold in just the last year. So why, then, doesn’t the U.S. produce more lithium to keep up with its own demand for batteries? 

Mining Woes

One obstacle hindering lithium production in the U.S. is the amount of time it takes to get a new mine up and running. From the time a mining permit is issued, it could take four to ten years or longer to begin production. It can take just as long, if not longer, to acquire all the necessary permits and raise enough funding to begin building a mine. Such permits are issued by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as well as local and state officials. 

“It is a long-term game, and it takes a very long time to permit for a mine,” said Cloyes. “We want to do it the right way and also simultaneously prioritize electric vehicles as a goal to get zero emissions."

As part of the permitting process, prospective miners must show that the mine will adhere to both federal and local environmental regulations that limit pollution and other harmful effects of mining. But sometimes that isn’t enough; protesters can and have halted, or at least hindered, the development of lithium mines, citing environmental and sustainability concerns. 

For example, a proposed mine at the largest lithium deposit in the U.S.—at Thacker Pass in Humboldt County, Nevada—has faced several court challenges over the last five years from local tribes, ranchers, and conservation groups.

The Thacker Pass mining site is located on a remote piece of federal land near the Oregon-Nevada border that a group of Native American tribes considers to be sacred. Over the course of the court hearings, protesters could be seen marching the streets outside the courthouse carrying signs with phrases such as “Mining isn’t green,” and “Protect Peehee Mu'huh,” which is the native Paiute term for the Thacker Pass region. 

Environmental activists have also moved to stop the development of the Thacker Pass mine, claiming that such a development would pollute and damage natural wildlife habitats and disrupt local ecosystems. One major point of contention from an environmental standpoint is that the mine would use billions of gallons of groundwater and could potentially contaminate the local water supply for several hundred years. The project will also leave behind an enormous and unsightly mound of waste rock adjacent to the mine. 

Despite the opposition, the Bureau of Land Management has granted the mining project, called Lithium Americas, the initial permits to begin building the mine. In March of this year, a federal court denied the opposition’s request for an injunction, and Lithium Americas finally broke ground on the facility as protests continued.

True Blue Power
True Blue Power has built a sizeable business manufacturing main-ship battery systems for traditional aircraft using standard A123-size lithium-ion batteries.

Government Initiatives

The introduction of lithium mines has been a debated subject for the current presidential administration. On one hand, the Biden administration has declared its commitment to clean energy and sustainability, as well as the domestic production of lithium and other raw materials used to make batteries. On the other hand, the administration has also touted its commitment to supporting Native American tribes and protecting sacred tribal lands. In many cases, such as with the Thacker Pass mine, these commitments can seem contradictory. 

Nevertheless, the Biden administration is pressing ahead with initiatives to help spur the domestic mining and production of materials that are critical to the battery industry. For example, in October 2022 President Biden announced the American Battery Materials Initiative, which will award $2.8 billion in Department of Energy grants to 20 manufacturing and processing companies in the U.S. that supply materials needed for energy storage and electric vehicle components, including lithium, nickel, and graphite.

The Inflation Reduction Act, which Congress passed last year with administration backing, also provides some incentives for battery manufacturers in the U.S. to use locally sourced lithium. To be eligible for subsidies worth thousands of dollars per vehicle, manufacturers must use raw materials mined and processed in North America or sourced from U.S. trading partners. Any components sourced from China or other “foreign entities of concern” will render EVs ineligible for government subsidies beginning in 2024. 

To help guide and accelerate the development of a domestic industrial base for lithium-ion batteries, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office established the FCAB in September 2020. The consortium, which is part of the strategy outlined in the DOE’s Energy Storage Grand Challenge Draft Roadmap, is led by the Departments of Energy, Commerce, and State and several government organizations and agencies. 

In June 2021, the FCAB published its National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries, which is intended to guide investments in “the urgent development of a domestic lithium battery manufacturing value chain.” The document provides a vision for the establishment of a domestic lithium-ion battery supply chain that will support long-term U.S. economic competitiveness, create new jobs, and uphold environmental and labor standards. 

The FCAB blueprint provides five goals that the U.S. must reach to achieve this vision. First, the U.S. must secure access to raw and refined materials, including those that are mined and processed domestically as well as materials imported from ally nations. The second goal is to establish a domestic processing base that will convert those raw materials into battery components such as cathodes, anodes, and electrolytes. Then the U.S. will need to bolster the domestic manufacturing of battery cells and battery packs made from those processed materials, which is the third goal of the FCAB’s blueprint. 

The fourth goal will be to establish large-scale battery recycling processes to enable the end-of-life reuse of battery cells. Finally, the FCAB's fifth goal calls for increased research and development efforts to develop battery technologies that deliver higher performance at lower costs, including new battery chemistries that may not depend on lithium or other materials imported from China. This type of R&D will need to be done by a highly skilled workforce, and preparing the next generation of scientists and engineers will require equitable access to science, technology, engineering, and math education at all levels, the report states. 

These goals spelled out by the FCAB could help the U.S. establish a domestic supply chain for lithium-ion batteries by 2030. However, despite having enough lithium reserves on U.S. soil, the domestic supply chain likely still won’t be sufficient to account for the surge in demand for lithium-ion batteries in the aviation sector once eVTOL developers start building out their air taxi fleets in 2025.