Tesla Lithium Extraction Facility Opening Mid-2024 in Texas
Tesla’s lithium refinery plant on the Texas Gulf Coast is ahead of schedule and should begin production by mid-2024.
In September 2022, Tesla said it would build a lithium refining facility near Corpus Christi on the Texas Gulf Coast. The plant is needed to supply battery materials to the Austin, Texas, Tesla Gigafactory that builds the Tesla Model Y, as well as the upcoming Tesla Semi heavy truck and Tesla Cybertruck electric pickup.
Tesla lithium refining facility. Image used courtesy of Tesla
Initially, construction was to be completed by the end of 2024, and lithium production would begin in 2025. The timeline has moved up, however, with plant commissioning expected in early 2024 and lithium ready to be shipped in the second half of 2024.
Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk once called lithium refining “a license to print money,” and, as early as 2020, he had purchased lithium mining claims in Nevada. The lithium refining plant on the Gulf Coast will use a Tesla-patented process the company claims produces lithium hydroxide that is up to 33 percent less expensive and more environmentally friendly than that created with current lithium extraction and refining methods.
Mining and Refining
Currently, lithium used in lithium-ion batteries is obtained either through the evaporation of brines that are pumped from beneath salt flats in South America and refined into lithium hydroxide or through hard-rock mining of the mineral spodumene deposits (largely in Australia) to obtain lithium carbonate eventually. Both methods are water and energy-intensive and require strong acids and environmentally unfriendly byproducts to be disposed of.
Lithium mine in Nevada. Image used courtesy of NASA
Nevada has several large deposits of lithium-bearing clay minerals, presenting an opportunity for a viable domestic source of lithium for use in electric vehicles (EVs). Traditionally, the extraction of lithium from these clay minerals would be done using the same strong acids as are used for hard rock lithium-bearing ores, but this results in the same environmental issues for waste materials and water usage.
Tesla’s Lithium Extraction Method
Instead of using strong acids to extract lithium from clay minerals, Tesla mixes a cation (positive ion) source such as sodium chloride (table salt) in a planetary ball mill for several hours before transferring the milled mixture into a reactor where it is mixed with water at high temperature (90°C) and agitated to create a lithium-rich slurry. Water vapors are collected and condensed to reduce water loss during the process.
The lithium-rich slurry can then be filtered to remove the lithium for further processing into battery-grade lithium hydroxide.
In addition to processing lithium-rich clays, Tesla says that the Texas facility will also be capable of extracting lithium from other sources, such as recycled EV batteries and manufacturing scrap from lithium-ion battery plants.
EVs are driving demand for lithium-ion batteries. Image used courtesy of NREL
The byproducts of the acid-free lithium refining using the Tesla process include a mixture of sand and limestone, both of which can be used as construction materials.
Millions to Billions
Tesla’s initial investment in its 1,200-acre Texas lithium refining facility will be $375 million, with an eventual investment of over $1 billion. The plant will be able to produce enough lithium hydroxide for more than 1 million EVs per year, making it the largest lithium production facility in North America. It will be able to supply Tesla’s ever-growing need for lithium-ion batteries.