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Materials

California lithium find offers boon for American security

Rio Tinto to build $10m pilot plant, hoping to be top producer in US

Rio Tinto's borax mine in California where high-grade lithium was found in waste rock. (Photo courtesy of the company)

SYDNEY -- Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto has found high-grade lithium in the waste rock at an existing American mine, potentially paving the way to become the largest producer in the U.S.

Rio will build a $10 million pilot plant in the next few months to process lithium from waste rock at its borates operation in California. If feasibility tests identify an extraction method that will secure profitability, the miner will look at constructing facilities capable of producing 5,000 tons of lithium carbonate annually. This would potentially make it the largest high-grade lithium producer in the U.S., the company told Nikkei.

Lithium is used to make rechargeable batteries that power everything from smartphones to electric vehicles. Global demand for lithium carbonate will reach 1.45 million tons in 2030, British data firm Roskill estimates, more than quintuple the projected volume for this year.

Rio, seeing the large demand potential for the metal in the age of EVs, already planned to develop a lithium operation in Serbia, with the final investment decision to be made by 2021.

Only one lithium mine currently exists in the U.S. The metal is produced mostly in South America and Australia.

The Trump administration has identified lithium as a commodity critical for economic and national security. The White House aims to establish a supply chain that does not depend on particular exporters. If Rio becomes a lithium producer in the U.S., the operation would match the administration's goals.

The borates produced at the company's California mine are used to make glass, catalysts and other materials. Lithium can be extracted from borate waste rock through a heating and leaching process, Rio said.

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