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Charlotte-based Albemarle builds an integrated lithium business in NC to power the world

Lithium processing blue building
David Boraks
/
WFAE
Albemarle Corp.'s lithium processing plant in Kings Mountain, N.C.  The company plans to expand processing with a "MegaFlex" plant in South Carolina.

This story appeared first in WFAE's weekly climate newsletter, which is out on Thursdays. Sign up at WFAE.org/newsletters.

A three-story blue building with a large American flag on the side houses Albemarle Corp.'s lithium processing plant in Kings Mountain. Unprocessed lithium comes in from the company's mines worldwide, and refined white-powered lithium goes out — thousands of tons per year.

Nearby is the company's research and development center. And just down the hill, Albemarle is hoping to reopen a former open-pit mine that was among the world's major lithium sources until it closed in 1988.

North Carolina is at the center of the global lithium empire that Charlotte-based Albemarle is building. It wants to lead the development of a U.S. supply chain to satisfy growing demand for lithium for batteries to power everything from electric vehicles to mobile phones and laptops.

"We've got a growing lithium ecosystem in Charlotte," Ellen Lenny-Pessagno said this week during a media tour of the planned mine and other facilities in Kings Mountain, about 30 miles west of Charlotte.

Besides the Kings Mountain operations, Albemarle has its headquarters in Charlotte's SouthPark area. It's planning a $200 million research center in Charlotte's University City area and a big expansion of lithium processing. That includes a new $400 million plant in Kings Mountain, and a$1.3 billion "Mega-Flex" lithium processing plant in Chester County, South Carolina. And it's adding jobs in the region at a furious rate.

"In the Charlotte and the Kings Mountain region, we're about 1,100 employees, up 85% over the last several years. So when you think about economic impact, it's significant," Lenny-Pessagno said.

She's been with the company for five years, which makes her a relatively senior employee amid all the growth.

Lithium's NC history

The Charlotte region’s prominence is the result of a combination of geology and history.

A mile-wide band of minerals known as the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt runs from Lincolnton south through Gaston County to Kings Mountain, along the South Carolina line. Spodumene is a rocky mineral that contains lithium. Mining companies developed "hard rock mining" methods to extract spodumene, which could then be refined.

The Kings Mountain mine was started in the 1930s by a predecessor of Albemarle.

In the 20th century, Gaston County mines supplied lithium for industrial lubricants, as an additive to strengthen glass and ceramics, and for medicines to treat depression and bipolar disorder. These mines were the world's primary source of the element until cheaper sources were found in Australia and South America.

Although no lithium is mined there anymore, that's about to change, thanks to the sudden demand for the unique metal.

For that, we can thank the invention of the lithium-ion battery in the 1970s. Since then, researchers have used lithium to make batteries smaller and longer lasting. And now the electric vehicle industry is expanding quickly. Electric vehicle sales in the U.S. were up 50% in the third quarter compared with a year ago and are expected to top 1 million this year, according toCox Automotive.

"Lithium is very light. It's the lightest metal. So it allows you to do the most with the least amount of weight," said Job Rijssenbeek, Albemarle's head of research and development.

"And secondly, it has a very high electrochemical potential. That means that your batteries are going to have a big voltage, and big voltage translates into high energy density. So that combination is unique to lithium. And it makes it ideally suited for applications like electric vehicles," Rijssenbeek said.

Like Lenny-Pessagno, he's been with the company for five years. "And over that time, (I've) been really excited to be able to build our (Research & Development) team right here in Kings Mountain, to not only bring to life the mine and the conversion and the plant here, but also to build the future for our company, the future of lithium and lithium-ion batteries."

Albemarle Corp. plans to reopen this former lithium mine in Kings Mountain.
Albemarle Corp.
Albemarle Corp. plans to reopen this former lithium mine in Kings Mountain.

Albemarle's history

Albemarle traces its roots to paper manufacturing in the 19th century. It sold the paper business in the 1970s and became a worldwide, but low-profile company making everything from specialty chemicals to pharmaceuticals to minerals. In 2015, then based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Albemarle bought specialty chemical maker Rockwood Holdings, which included the Kings Mountain site.

That deal doubled the company's size. Not long after, Albemarle moved its headquarters to Charlotte, which was closer to Kings Mountain and Charlotte Douglas Airport.

Additional acquisitions since then have created what's now one of the world's leading lithium and specialty chemical suppliers. Albemarle’s stock is a favorite of Wall Street analysts, most of whom have "buy" ratings on its shares after a recent decline in mineral stocks.

Albemarle's plans

Albemarle remains in growth mode. The company says it expects to have more than 1,800 North Carolina employees within a decade, up from the current 1,100. Besides the Charlotte headquarters, the company has or plans other key operations in the region:

  • MINING: The Kings Mountain open-pit mine is now a 168-foot-deep lake surrounded by the popular Kings Mountain Gateway Trail. But as lithium prices have risen with demand for the element, reopening the mine now makes financial sense. Albemarle announced those plans last year. This week, it said plans to begin draining the lake in early 2024. It still needs a state mining permit, but hopes to reopen the mine as soon as late 2026. The mine could produce enough raw minerals to yield 50,000 metric tons of processed lithium annually — enough to supply batteries for 1.2 million electric vehicles per year. The mine reopening project is getting a$90 million critical minerals grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. When it opens, it will join Albemarle's other mines in South America, Australia and Silver Peak, Nevada, which remains the only currently operating lithium mine in the U.S.  [By the way, Albemarle hopes to keep the nature trail open, with some temporary closures.]
  • PROCESSING: Albemarle's Kings Mountain processing plant produces thousands of tons of white powdered lithium a year, from its other mines. It's sent to customers in 1-ton bags called "super sacks." But as Albemarle reopens the Kings Mountain mine and increases production at others, the plant won't be big enough. So in March, the company announced plans for a larger $1.3 billion "Mega-Flex" processing plant in Chester County. It will process lithium from hard rock mines like Kings Mountain as well as those that extract lithium from saltwater in Nevada and South America. It eventually could supply enough lithium for 2.4 million vehicles annually. Construction is supposed to start in late 2024. 
    Meysam Shahami, manager of materials characterization, describes a microscopic image of battery material at Albemarle's research lab in Kings Mountain.
    David Boraks
    /
    WFAE
    Meysam Shahami, manager of materials characterization, describes a microscopic image of battery material at Albemarle's research lab in Kings Mountain.
  • RESEARCH: Albemarle is not just a supplier of raw materials, but also a research company to help expand and improve the uses of lithium. As Rijssenbeek told me, "If it includes lithium, we're working on it." A year ago, the company announced a $200 million lithium research center off W.T. Harris Boulevard in Charlotte's University Research Park, creating 300 jobs. Albemarle's researchers will continue developing their versions of batteries and other uses, in partnership with customers. "The R&D is both for ourselves, to understand our products better, but it's also for us to help our customers incorporate our products in the best optimal way possible," Rijssenbeek said. 

Albemarle is not the only company with its eyes on Gaston County lithium. Belmont-based Piedmont Lithium is awaiting a state mining permit for a site in northern Gaston County near Cherryville. Currently, the area is mostly agricultural land and homes. The project also will need Gaston County zoning approval.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.
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