By Prisha Tiwari, MEM ’25
This article was written in response to a seminar given by Diana Rowe, Global Marketing Director, Energy Storage, Albemarle Corporation, in an EDGE Seminar at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Fall 2023. This article voices one student’s perspective and does not necessarily represent the views of either Duke University or the seminar speaker.
The term “white gold” previously referred to the likes of sugar and cotton; today, it unequivocally refers to lithium—an indispensable resource for our clean energy future. The pivot towards electric vehicles (EVs) as a cornerstone for decarbonization initiatives worldwide has put lithium in the spotlight. Its crucial role in battery production is undisputed, with every major player in the automobile industry betting big on lithium-ion technology to power their EV fleets. As we witness an unprecedented demand for EVs, the question looms large: how will the battery industry evolve to meet the soaring need for lithium while responding to environmental and geopolitical pressures?
The crux of the lithium supply question lies at the intersection of sustainability and supply chain politics. Albemarle Corporation, a giant in the lithium market, stands as a beacon of progress in the industry and this is reflected by the company’s latest sustainability report. In this document, Albemarle outlines a vision to not only lead the market but to do so with a sense of responsibility towards the planet. The company’s pledge to attain carbon neutrality is a bold testament to its recognition of the environmental stakes tied to lithium extraction and processing.
Water scarcity and ecological considerations cast a long shadow over the realm of lithium mining, particularly in the fragile environs of the Lithium Triangle, South America’s treasure trove of more than half of the world’s lithium reserves. In response to calls for environmental stewardship, Albemarle has set forth rigorous goals to curtail water consumption and elevate recycling efforts within its operations.1 This conscientious water management is vital, notably in arid zones such as Chile’s Atacama Desert, where water is as precious as the minerals beneath the surface.
Understanding the potential for mining to unsettle ecosystems, Albemarle pledges to undertake exhaustive environmental impact assessments, ensuring that the natural web of life remains undisturbed. Proactive in its environmental strategy, the company is committed to executing strategies designed to lessen any detrimental impacts on local flora and fauna. Illustrative of this commitment is the careful approach Albemarle is taking in North Carolina. Diana Rowe, Global Marketing Director for Energy Storage at Albemarle highlighted the details of the project for students in our EDGE Seminar class. Albemarle is approaching the reinvigoration of the King’s Mountain mine with a deliberate pause, prioritizing ecological surveys to protect a potentially endangered species of bat—a move that reflects the company’s deep-seated reverence for biodiversity and a sustainable future.
The geopolitical tensions of lithium’s rise are equally important considerations. China’s dominance in processing raw lithium into battery-grade material is a strategic advantage. By controlling a significant portion of the battery supply chain, China is positioning itself as an indispensable node in the global energy transition.2 This dominance parallels the way natural gas reserves once catapulted America to the pinnacle of energy superpowers, underscoring the inextricable link between natural resources and geopolitical might.
The battery industry faces a formidable challenge: scaling up production while navigating environmental concerns and geopolitical tensions. Innovation is key; research from McKinsey & Co. sheds light on potential breakthroughs like solid-state batteries that could lessen the dependence on lithium by offering higher energy density and safety.3 Yet, the immediate future still rests on lithium-ion technology, and the sustainable scaling of lithium supply remains an urgent priority.
In anticipation of these challenges, corporations are not merely reactive but proactive, strategically broadening their supply networks and championing advancements in recycling technology to reclaim lithium from spent batteries. While the full maturation of such recycling infrastructure is projected to unfold beyond 2040, this foresight is cushioned by the fact that global lithium reserves are presently adequate to meet demand comfortably until that time.4
Simultaneously, governments are stepping up, providing incentives to stimulate domestic mining ventures, thus diminishing dependence on singular markets while fostering job growth at home. Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Electric Vehicle Outlook underscores that the shift to EVs is an inevitability; the question is not ‘if’ but ‘when.’5
The burgeoning demand for EVs and the consequent rise in lithium’s strategic value calls for a balanced approach that harmonizes the urgent need for decarbonization with the imperatives of ecological conservation and political stability. The road ahead is complex, and it requires a collaborative effort from stakeholders across the spectrum to ensure that lithium, the linchpin of the green revolution, does not become a flashpoint for conflict but a symbol of sustainable progress.
The future is electric, and lithium is its beating heart. Yet, as we traverse this electrifying path, it is crucial to remember that the true measure of progress lies not in the material we mine, but in the balance we maintain.
- Albemarle Corporation. Albemarle Sustainability Report 2022. 5 June 2023. ↩︎
- Bhutada, Govind. “Visualizing China’s Dominance in Battery Manufacturing (2022-
2027P).” Visual Capitalist, 19 Jan. 2023. ↩︎
- McKinsey & Company. “Lithium-Ion Battery Demand 2030: Resilient, Sustainable, and
Circular.” 16 Jan. 2023. ↩︎
- Rowe, Diana. EDGE Seminar Fall 2023. ↩︎
- Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “Electric Vehicle Outlook 2023.” Bloomberg Professional Services,
27 July 2023. Accessed 5 Nov. 2023. ↩︎