In a move described as the car industry’s biggest investment in lithium production, General Motors plans to spend $650 million for a stake in Lithium Americas, a company that’s developing a mining project in Nevada.
Lithium Americas says its proposed Thacker Pass mine would tap into the largest source of lithium in the US. It expects to make 40,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate per year in the first phase of development, with production starting in 2026. All of that lithium would be sold to GM for 10 years. The companies expect the mine to eventually produce enough lithium to power a million electric cars.
Carmakers like GM are eager to make sure they have enough raw materials to make batteries, especially materials produced in the US that would qualify for tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act, according to Ian Lange, director of the Mineral and Energy Economics graduate program at the Colorado School of Mines.
The US only has one operating lithium mine, and Lange says federal regulators are slow to permit new mining projects. Getting carmakers involved might provide a broader base of support to push projects forward, he says. “Car manufacturers . . . have more political power,” he says. “They can change the dynamic.”
At the mine, Lithium Americas plans to dig up lithium-rich clay and leach it with sulfuric acid, which would be made on-site. Then a processing plant would neutralize and crystalize the material, producing lithium carbonate.
GM’s investment is contingent upon the approval of an environmental permit. Environmental and Native American groups are challenging the mine’s permit, arguing that it would damage the environment and cultural sites. A federal court is expected to reach a decision on the permit later this year.
The investment also depends on Lithium Americas’ success in raising the $2.3 billion it needs to open the mine. The company hopes a big portion of the remaining funding will come a Department of Energy (DOE) loan it has applied for.
In January, DOE announced a loan of up to $700 million for Ioneer’s lithium mining project, also in Nevada, marking the first time the agency has supported a lithium extraction project. And in December General Motors secured a $2.5 billion loan for battery cell factories from the same program. “General Motors certainly will be very helpful in ensuring the DOE funding is closed,” Lithium Americas CEO Jonathan Evans said on an investor call about the deal.
GM is holding back part of its investment until Lithium Americas splits its Argentinian operations into a new company. Lithium Americas is partnering with the Chinese firm Ganfeng Lithium on a mining project in Argentina, and Republican leaders raised concerns about that relationship last fall. Shortly after, Lithium Americas said it would split the projects to provide them more operating flexibility.