If there are any more doubts that electric vehicles are here to stay, GM has laid them to rest. The automaker has just announced its first-ever retooling of one of its propulsion facilities to make the innards for EVs. That’s the kind of move that could make EV-only startups quake in their boots, but the real question is how to plump up the lithium supply chain.
More Honking Big Electric Vehicles For The US
It seems that the American car buying public can’t get enough of big mobility devices, and automakers are coming along for the ride. GM’s new EV makeover aims $760 million at its Toledo, Ohio, Propulsion Plant for a suite of supersized electric vehicles, mainly the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, the GMC Sierra pickup, and of course, the GMC Hummer, which comes in both pickup and SUV versions.
The emphasis on pickup trucks is no accident. The startup Tesla continues to dominate the market for electric sedans and crossover SUVs, but so far the company has not responded to the growing demand for pickup trucks.
“This investment is another example of GM’s intention to create job opportunities and to bring employees along in the company’s EV transformation,” GM explained a press release on Friday, adding that “GM’s EV drive units will cover front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive propulsion combinations, including high-performance and off-road capabilities.
GM is not waiting for the grass to grow under its feet — or for Tesla to start producing pickup trucks. Work on the conversion is set to begin before the end of the month.
The Car Buying Public Wants Bigger Electric Vehicles, And That Is That
The good news is that automakers like GM are finally convinced that car buyers are finally convinced that electric vehicles can perform just as well as, if not better than, their gas guzzling counterparts. That includes everything on up to the notorious Hummer, and beyond.
On the down side, sucking up more of the world’s resources to manufacture bigger vehicles is not necessarily the most sustainable plan in the world. One key sticking point is the supply of lithium and other battery materials.
To the extent that recycling can dull some of the edge, GM also has a plan for that.
Last week the company also announced an investment in the Canadian battery recycling company Lithion, sealed with a strategic partnership.
The recycling angle is more complicated than it may seem. Recycling just about anything is an energy intensive operation, so part of the challenge is to prove that recycling EV batteries for lithium will suck up less resources than simply digging more lithium up from the ground.
GM apparently zeroed in on Lithion due to its access to “green energy” in Quebec, presumably meaning hydropower. According to a third-party analysis cited by GM, the Lithion facility in Québec involves a greenhouse gas savings of more than 75% and a water use saving of more than 90% compared to mining for battery materials.
“In Lithion’s technology, we see the opportunity to recover and reuse raw material in our Ultium battery packs, making the EVs we produce even more sustainable and helping drive down costs,” explained Jeff Morrison, who is GM vice president for Global Purchasing and Supply Chain.
Lithion’s recycling system has already passed an industrial-scale demonstration shakedown that began in 2020, and the company is anticipating its first commercial launch next year. That’s just for starters, and GM appears to be planning on more to come.
“The opening of this facility, with a capacity of 7,500 metric tons per year of lithium-ion batteries, will be followed in 2025 by the launch of Lithion’s first hydrometallurgical plant,” GM notes. “Lithion has multiple facilities in the pipeline for the U.S., Europe and Korea, in line with its vision to support rapid deployment and enhanced battery end-of-life management globally.” Lithion has already laid plans for 25 battery recycling facilities globally by 2035.
Mr. Morrison has been very busy of late. GM states that it has agreements in its pocket with various suppliers to meet its planned production capacity as of 2025. That includes nickel, cobalt and full cathode active materials as well as lithium.
Mining For Lithium In The US, Or Not
GM is still leaning on overseas suppliers, but the company states that it is working to build up its North American supply chain. Recycling is one way to do that. However, considering the skyrocketing demand for battery-type energy storage, more lithium mining is going to happen in the US, one way or another.
If that means more surface mining, that means more trouble on the environmental front. Lithium can also be extracted from brine, but the conventional method involves open air evaporation lagoons, and more trouble.
That’s the conventional method. One up-and-coming approach is a new system for extracting lithium from geothermal brine without the use of massive open air lagoons.
The new geothermal extraction system crossed the CleanTechnica radar last December, when the firm Controlled Thermal Resources revved up Stage One of a project at the lithium-rich Salton Sea in California, called the Hell’s Kitchen Lithium and Power project.
The first stage involves generating power, to the tune of about 50 megawatts in geothermal capacity. By 2024 CTR expects to start producing lithium hydroxide, without the impacts of evaporation or surface mining. CTR lists the following advantages:
- Small physical footprint
- No open-pit mining or evaporation ponds
- No tailings or overseas processing
- Fully integrated onsite process
- Powered by renewable energy and steam
- Near-zero CO2 emissions
Stellantis, for one, is already on board. Back in June the company signed a binding off-take agreement “for CTR to supply battery grade lithium hydroxide for use in Stellantis’ North American electrified vehicle production.”
Circling back around to GM, let’s note for the record that the company is not simply throwing more oversized electric vehicles into a grid system that still relies on copious amounts of natural gas and coal.
The company is a founding member of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (now renamed the Clean Energy Buyers Association), and it has been pursuing an aggressive renewable energy program that covers public usage, not just its own facilities.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: GM’s growing stable of electric vehicles includes the new Hummer EV (photo courtesy of GM).
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