Albemarle plans major U.S. lithium processing plant

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A sign at the approach road leads to Albemarle's lithium evaporation ponds at its facility in Silver Peak, Nevada, U.S., January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Ernest Scheyder

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PHOENIX, Ariz., June 27 (Reuters) - Albemarle Corp (ALB.N) plans to build a lithium processing plant in the United States that would produce as much of the electric vehicle battery metal as the entire company produces today, a bullish bet on America's all-electric future,an executive said on Monday.

The plan reflects Albemarle's emerging strategy to lead the U.S. lithium renaissance, from mine development to processing to manufacturing types of the metal used to make high-end EV batteries.

Eric Norris, head of Albemarle's lithium division, said the company has seen a major shift in the last nine months in the United States with an "unprecedented" number of EV manufacturing plants announced, a harbinger the company believes will fuel a surge in lithium demand.

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The company as a result aims to build a processing plant with 100,000 tonnes of annual capacity in the U.S. Southeast somewhere within rail access of a major port, Norris said.

"There isn't enough (lithium) supply yet to supply the ambitions of the U.S.," Norris told the Fastmarkets Lithium Supply and Battery Raw Materials conference in Phoenix, Arizona. "This (processing plant) will be essential for our success in the future."

Albemarle is in active discussions with automakers on buying supply from the facility, Norris said. Albemarle already supplies Tesla Inc (TSLA.O), as well as several other major automakers.

While Albemarle had spoken vaguely in the past about building a U.S processing plant, it used Monday's conference to announce the specific plan and said it will be key as the company aims to boost its overall lithium production capacity fivefold to 500,000 tonnes annually by 2030.

The U.S. plant would be of a similar design to a processing plant Albemarle recently opened in Kemerton, Western Australia, though it would need to cost less than Kemerton, whose costs ballooned far above its initial target of $1.2 billion, Norris said.

Albemarle plans to self-fund the facility, though it could apply for U.S. Department of Energy loans, he said.

The plant would be supplied from lithium extracted from the company's Kings Mountain mine in North Carolina, which is currently mothballed but may reopen as soon as 2027.

The Kings Mountain facility would likely compete with a planned lithium mine and processing complex in a nearby North Carolina county from Piedmont Lithium Inc , which faces regulatory and local pushback.

Unlike Piedmont's mine, Kings Mountain would be a reopening of a facility that closed in the 1980s, a distinction that Norris said he expects to work in Albemarle's favor.

"This is an existing mine in a town that is very mining oriented," Norris said. "We're very present in the community."

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Reporting by Ernest Scheyder Editing by Chris Reese and Leslie Adler

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Thomson Reuters

Covers the future of energy and transportation including electric vehicle and battery technology, with a focus on lithium, copper, cobalt, rare earths and other minerals, politics, policy, etc. Previously covered the oil and natural gas, including a stint living in North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil patch.