Nevada may be known as the Silver State, and it also may be the nation’s biggest source of gold, but there’s another mineral being extracted from its ground: Lithium.
Lithium is a crucial element used for several products–you’re likely familiar with lithium ion batteries, but the product list goes much further.
Most of the world’s lithium deposits are found in South America–Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina.
Although the United States isn’t the world’s largest lithium producer, the good ol’ state of Nevada is helping American companies shift away from foreign mining operations, but not without a few issues.
Mining the mineral in the state has received a lot of resistance from local communities and environmental activists, slowing down the operations.
But when there’s money in the ground, good luck trying to stop corporations from digging it up!
We have a lot of interesting information to unpack, so let’s dive into the top things you need to know about lithium mining in Nevada.
1. What is Lithium?
Lithium is a type of metal that’s soft and lightweight.
On the periodic table, it’s categorized in the alkali metal group–the other elements in the group include sodium (Na), potassium (K), cesium (Cs), francium (Fr), and rubidium (Rb).
Lithium is incredibly versatile and can be used to strengthen glass and even to help treat mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder.
But lithium is primarily used to make lithium batteries.
In fact, the device you’re reading this on likely contains a lithium battery.
They’re used in cellphones, laptops, electronic vehicles, and a range of other devices that use rechargeable batteries; however, lithium is also found in devices with non-rechargeable batteries, such as toys, clocks, and remotes.
Without lithium, the production of many items we use on a daily basis would come to a screeching halt.
2. When and How Was Lithium Discovered?
In 1817, a Swedish chemist named Johan August Arfwedson discovered lithium.
The discovery happened while he was examining petalite–a mineral that contains lithium, aluminum, and phyllosilicate.
At the time of discovery, Arfwedson lacked the machinery to isolate lithium, but it wouldn’t take long.
In 1821, the element was officially isolated by a British chemist named William Thomas Brande.
The problem was that only small amounts could be extracted, preventing lithium from major uses.
It wouldn’t be until 1855 that Robert Bunsen and Augustus Matthiessen used a different form of electrolysis to generate greater qualities.
Lithium’s first primary use was to treat mania and depression, but it was later used to grease aircraft and create nuclear bombs–quite a resume, huh?
3. Where is Lithium Found in the US?
The United States only holds a small percentage of the world’s lithium reserves, but there are still rich deposits.
Here are the states with lithium deposits.
Despite there being seven states holding lithium, the United States only produces about 2% percent of the world’s supply.
The electric vehicle industry has dramatically increased the demand for lithium, and most companies have to supply their need through China-owned mines.
More and more of these companies are looking to use American-based lithium, but social and environmental activists have put roadblocks up, left and right.
So, now that you have an idea of what lithium is and the history behind it, let’s focus our attention on lithium mining in Nevada.
4. Is Nevada Rich in Lithium?
The exact amount of lithium in Nevada isn’t documented, but experts believe that the state alone could be able to provide 25% of the world’s supply.
That would be a drastic increase from the measly 2% today.
Most of the lithium is located in the northern part of the state, near the Oregon border, but due to resistance from the community, none of it is currently being mined.
However, if mining companies can get past the pushback, Nevada could experience a modern-day Gold Rush.
5. How Many Lithium Mines Are in Nevada?
So, after learning about how much lithium is in Nevada, how many mines do you think there are?
Nevada is home to one single active lithium mine, which is also the only lithium mine in all of the United States.
The United States has been completely relying on foreign mining companies to meet its lithium need with a tiny bit of help from the one American mine.
That mine is called Silver Peak, located in the southwestern part of the state, and it’s been operating since 1967.
But it likely won’t be the only mine for long.
There’s currently a new mine in the northern part of the state called Thacker Pass that’s under construction.
The project has been delayed because the deposit is located on a site that’s sacred to local Native American tribes.
Despite the backlash, the mine is likely going to move forward (see below for more information).
6. How Much Lithium Does the Silver Peak Mine Produce?
As of now, Silver Peak can produce around 5,000 metric tons of lithium per year.
But what’s a metric ton?
One metric ton weighs about 2,205 pounds.
So, to give you a better idea of how much it’s producing, that comes out to just over eleven million pounds.
Sounds like a lot more, right?
Well, the company behind the mine, Albemarle, has been investing in expanding its capacity to meet new demands.
Some reports have claimed that Siler Peak could reach 10,000 metric tons per year by 2024, but there aren’t any current reports to verify if the mine is, in fact, on track.
With that being said, the company did announce that it had a budget between $30 and $50 million to expand the operation.
Part of the investment will go to tapping into new lithium deposits and bringing in new technology to expedite the process.
Despite the big plans, Silver Peak may soon lose its reign as the nation’s biggest lithium mine.
7. What is the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine?
If the United States is going to steer clear of international mines, then lithium mining in Nevada is going to be a crucial operation.
To meet new demands, a mining company called Lithium Americas is currently setting up one of the biggest lithium mining operations in the world: Thacker Pass.
Thacker Pass is located near the Nevada Oregan border, where one of the state’s biggest lithium deposits is located.
At the beginning of 2021, the mine was officially approved by the US Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
It currently has everything in place to be the nation’s next and most ambitious lithium mine.
Lithium Americas received a whopping $650 million investment from General Motors Co, and the car company will receive a massive chunk of the lithium that’s produced as it has its eyes on an all-electric future.
But, as I’ve been alluding to throughout this article, the mine has faced severe criticism.
So, let’s take a closer look at the resistance it’s facing and why.
8. Why is Thacker Pass Being Challenged?
Thacker Pass Mine has received backlash from multiple angles.
Environmentalists came out and said the operation would do irreparable damage to wildlife and the surrounding area, such as drying up local springs and threatening an endangered spring snail.
But the biggest challenge the mine has faced has come from the local Native American tribes who hold the Thacker Pass sacred.
In an attempt to stop the new lithium mining operation in Nevada, the tribes filed a lawsuit arguing that there was a failure to consult with regional tribes before advancing with the project.
Chief Judge Miranda M. Du declared that the outreach was fair and reasonable to the Tribal Nations with connections to the land.
Yet, local tribes are still fighting to prevent the mining operation from moving forward.
As of now, it looks like there’s little more that could be done to stop it, especially with more and more electric-vehicle companies lining up to purchase American-produced lithium.
Lithium Americas plans to begin official construction in the spring of 2023 and be producing lithium by 2026.
9. How Much Lithium Will Thacker Pass Produce?
Lithium Americas is planning to pull around 80,000 metric tons from Thacker Pass for the next 40 years.
That would be enough lithium to supply batteries for about a million electric vehicles per year, and General Motors will have exclusive access for a period of time due to its large investment.
The project will be staged in two phases to reach this goal.
The first phase, which includes initial mining efforts, will target 40,000 metric tons per year (total costs of phase one are expected to be $2.27 billion).
The second phase will focus on expanding the mining efforts to reach the company’s total goal of 80,000 metric tons a year (total costs of phase two are expected to be $1.73 billion).
If Thacker Pass can be mined correctly, the financial results will be massive.
The net present value (NPV) of the mine is currently believed to be $5.7 billion–quite a bit of money.
10. How Is Lithium Mined?
There are two forms of lithium mining: hard rock mining and brine mining.
The hard rock mining process is similar to that of other open pit mining processes.
Using heavy machinery, such as excavators, dozers, graders, and mining trucks, miners extract ore that is rich in lithium and bring it to a grinder.
At times, explosives are used to make accessing the ore easier.
Once at the grinder, the ore will be broken up into small pieces and then flooded with water.
Lithium and ore will separate from each other due to their difference in density.
Sulfuric acid is then added, and the liquid goes through a heating and filtration process to extract the lithium (this step will be performed multiple times until all of the lithium is removed).
The brine mining method is much slower but much more cost-effective.
Mining companies, primarily in South America and China, pump salty water from underground brine reservoirs that are rich in lithium to the surface.
The water is then stored in large manmade ponds.
As the sun evaporates the water, all the minerals are left at the bottom of the pond, which the mining companies can collect.
Chemical treatments and filtration cycles are performed in order to isolate lithium before it is washed, dried, and shipped off.
11. How Damaging to Lithium Mining?
Lithium mining is damaging–very damaging.
Mines do not create a hospitable environment for flora or fauna.
Hard rock mining completely destroys the land being mined and disrupts surrounding ecosystems.
The heavy machinery also burns immense amounts of fuel, polluting the local area.
Brine mining can dry up water sources, resulting in overly dry land and threatening ecosystems with potential extinction.
No matter which way you look at lithium mining in Nevada or anywhere else in the world, it’s a problematic process.
Unfortunately, lithium is one of the best resources for creating rechargeable batteries. Until an alternative solution is discovered, mining companies will continue to decimate pieces of land to obtain it.
12. Can Lithium Be Recycled Instead of Mined?
Think of all the electronics and electric cars that contain lithium batteries but are no longer in use.
Surely those batteries can be recycled, right?
Yep…but there are a few problems.
The process of recycling lithium batteries is expensive, and it’s cheaper for companies to buy new batches of lithium.
Unfortunately, most companies are profit-driven rather than environment-driven–even electric car companies.
Additionally, the process is arduous and dangerous. Lithium batteries are flammable, posing serious safety risks, and also heavy, making them difficult to move around.
The good news is that scientists are finding ways to make recycled batteries just as effective as new batteries.
If scientists can find ways to cut back the cost of the process, recycled batteries are going to be a huge resource for companies trying to meet the high demands.
Until then, lithium mining isn’t going anywhere.
13. Will the Earth Ever Run out of Lithium?
Lithium is not an infinite resource.
So, it is possible that the Earth will one day run out of the element.
As more and more car manufacturers announce new all-electric futures, lithium mining in Nevada and the rest of the world is going to continue to increase.
If new deposits aren’t found in the next 50 to 100 years, there could be severe lithium shortages; however, the chances of finding new sites are high.
We will also likely see technological leaps in the electric vehicle industry now that more companies are investing in research.
So, is it possible for us to run out of lithium?
Yes, but with new mines like Thacker Pass and new efforts to improve the recycling process, the future looks secure.
Lithium mining in Nevada is going to completely disrupt the supply chain–in a good way.
Companies will no longer have to rely on mining operations overseas, and as additional mines are set up throughout the country, the United States will be a major player in producing the crucial resource.
Despite the great economic benefits, lithium mines do come with negative environmental consequences, and these consequences will accrue on sacred land, at least in the case of Thacker Pass.
Still, even though new mines will have to jump through various hurdles, the demand for lithium is so high it’s unlikely anything can prevent new operations from being established.
So, the next time you charge your phone, laptop, or electric vehicle, take a minute to consider that lithium is what’s making it all possible!
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