It appears that the first roadblocks to Tesla’s plans to produce its own lithium are beginning to emerge, with critics noting that the electric car maker’s initiatives may very well be mired in several challenges. These include a potentially exhausting permitting process, as well as pervading questions about the company’s planned lithium-producing technologies.
During Tesla’s Battery Day event, CEO Elon Musk told shareholders that the company had acquired rights to 10,000 acres in Nevada where lithium could be produced. Musk noted that Tesla will be producing lithium from clay deposits using an internally-developed process. If successful, Tesla would be the first company in the market to commercially produce the white metal from clay.
Lithium is commonly produced from brine, which is typically found in South America. The material is also produced from spodumene hard rock, which is commonly found in Australia.
Tesla’s plans for lithium production are quite ambitious. As noted in a Reuters report, Tesla plans to mix clay with table salt and water, causing a reaction where the salt would leach out with lithium that’s ready to be extracted. The leftover clay from the process would be put back into the earth to mitigate environmental damage. “It’s a very sustainable way of obtaining lithium,” Musk said.
Inasmuch as Tesla’s plans are ambitious, however, the plan promptly drew backlash from critics, some of whom argued that the electric car maker provided far too little details on its lithium production initiatives. Among these critics is Chris Berry, an independent lithium industry consultant, who noted that Tesla’s plan and proposed process are questionable.
“This plan from Tesla brings up a lot more questions than it answers. Are we just supposed to take Elon Musk’s word for it that the cost will be lower than existing lithium projects?… If producing lithium in commercial amounts at battery quality grades from clay was feasible, why isn’t it already being done?” the consultant said.
Pedro Palandrani of the Global X Lithium & Battery Technology ETF was more optimistic about Tesla’s plans, though he warned that lithium mining could be a very tedious process for the electric car maker. This is especially notable since any lithium mining operations require an extensive application process, whose permit approvals could last for a very long time. Palandrani, for his part, stated that he would not be surprised if it takes Tesla several years before it could begin lithium operations in Nevada.
“Mining lithium is very challenging. If Tesla really wants to fly solo, we’re talking about four to five years to really see any kind of lithium production,” Palandrani noted.