Alaska a Potential “Engine” for Electric Cars
Alaska could be an “engine” for U.S. electric car manufacturing. Lithium has been detected at Coal Creek in Yukon-Koyukuk, and other prospects are being investigated in Seward. Lithium is essential for the batteries in these cars. Mining the deposit would have an environmental impact. But “it’s too early to speculate,” says Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Survey Mineral Resources chief, Melanie Werdon.
In late May, Discovery Alaska Limited reported that it had identified lithium at Coal Creek, which is part of its 100%-owned Chulitna Project. The company has initiated a comprehensive work program to assess and quantify the lithium stockpile and other minerals critical to making electric car batteries. Never, in forty years of drilling at these historic mines, have these materials been detected.
The samples are being analyzed at the Alaska Geological Materials Center Repository in Anchorage. “The scanner has detected lithium in broad zones throughout the metallic drill holes,” Discovery Alaska Limited says in a statement. “Several prospects on the Seward Peninsula are being investigated, including the historic Lost River mine,” Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Survey (DGGS) Mineral Resources chief, Melanie Werdon, tells Sol de Medianoche.
Alaska is a “laggard” state for the U.S. electric vehicle market. Although it has enormous growth potential, it faces an unquestionable natural barrier: weather. Subzero temperatures reduce the capacity of current batteries for these cars. At -5°F, their range drops to 54%; at -4°F, to around 45%. Between 14°F and 32°F, performance is 60%, and in no case does it reach 80%. These are data from the Canadian technology company Geotab.
There is another important barrier: orography, permafrost, and the network of paved roads. Alaska is the largest state in the United States and the third largest subcontinental region on the planet. The range of these vehicles, limited by the cold, is further reduced by the terrain conditions.
In 2021, Alaska was at the bottom of the U.S. in the use of electric vehicles. Two years ago, only 1,570 cars were on the road, according to data from the Alaska Electric Vehicles Association (AKEVA). Nationally, the United States had 607,567 units: 164,181 were hybrids (PHEV, Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) and 443,386 were 100% electric, according to the study “Historical trend of annual sales of plug-in electric passenger cars in the U.S. by powertrain type (2010-2021),” prepared by Costa Rican specialist Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz, ‘Mariordo.’
Of these 1,570 electric cars, Nissan, Tesla, and Ford were, among others, the most common brands. At the end of 2021, Tesla installed its first Supercharger station.
The true dimensions of the lithium deposit at Coal Creek remain to be seen. It may be positive news for manufacturers, but its exploitation would have an environmental impact to assess. The mines are in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area.
Werdon, highlights several caveats. On environmental impact, she says, “The Alaska Division of Mines, Lands and Waters, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and various federal agencies are strict in their permitting; they regulate what the mining company does and, once mining is complete, they require reclamation of the land. These agencies ensure compliance with modern environmental standards.”
On the impact on the automotive sector, Werdon says, “If the industry finds a promising deposit, it will have to follow the Canadian NI43-101 or the Australian JORC standard for reporting lithium resources, which set strict standards. Until it explores further and defines the resources, there is no way to say how much lithium is in Alaska. Much remains to be explored. From the discovery of the ore to the start of mining, it usually takes ten to twenty-five years, or more.”
“Companies are still developing the technology to extract lithium. If this extraction process ends up being economical, it may be possible to produce lithium in Alaska in the future,” Werdon says. vBut “it’s too early to speculate whether Alaska could become a strategic ally of the U.S. auto industry.”