Lithium exploration expands in Nevada

Tonopah, Nevada circa 1913 - photo: F.W. Sheelor, Library of Congress

According to the Nevada Division of Minerals, exploration for lithium has dramatically increased in recent years. As of April 6 2021, the state estimates there are lithium claims located in 18 hydrographic basins across Nevada. American Lithium, a Canadian company, is actively working to acquire, explore and develop lithium deposits within “mining-friendly jurisdictions,” and the company is scoping a project near Tonopah. 

The Tonopah Lithium Claims (TLC) Projects are located in the “Esmeralda Lithium District,” as it’s known, just outside Tonopah. American Lithium has not responded to a request for comment, but the company touts the fact that the mines are 3.5 hours south of the Tesla Gigafactory and in the same environment as Albemarle’s Silver Peak Lithium Mine, the only functioning lithium mine in the United States.

The Silver Peak mine is located in Clayton Valley in Esmeralda County. The 85-employee mine began producing lithium carbonate from evaporation ponds in 1967. The miners pump briny water rich with minerals into the large outdoor ponds and concentrate the lithium through the evaporative process, but the American Lithium TLC Project is a different type of resource.

In 2020, the US Department of Energy Advanced Manufacturing Office awarded the Nevada-based American Battery Metals Corporation and American Lithium a $2,272,112 matching funds grant to conduct a “field demonstration of selective leaching, targeted purification, and electro-chemical production of battery grade lithium hydroxide precursor from domestic claystone resources.”

The 1,550 acre TLC Claystones Project is, as the name implies, a claystone resource located “minutes from the mining center of Tonopah.”  On May 7, 2020, American Lithium announced it had successfully shown the ability, under laboratory conditions, to extract lithium utilizing sulfuric acid leaching on samples of the TLC claystones at extraction rates of 90 percent in as few as 10 minutes, according to the company.

Drill core samples revealed that “lithium claystone mineralization is found consistently across nearly four square miles of the project and appears to extend in all directions.” 

The company has been reportedly collaborating with researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and then “corroborating and expanding” those findings at McClelland Laboratories based in Sparks, Nevada. 

Using a laboratory-scale centrifuge, technicians concentrated lithium and then successfully extracted up to 96 percent of the metal from the concentrated ore. The company says “hydro cyclone technology” can reduce the use of sulphuric acid needed to leach the lithium from the clay by 45 percent. The process was scaled up at SGS Laboratories in Lakefield, Ontario, where technicians determined the process could be expanded to industrial scale.

According to American Lithium CEO Mike Kobler in a press release issued earlier this year, developing an extraction process that makes the resource economically viable is a critical step in the long journey to an operating and profitable mine.

American Lithium says it is in the process of updating its website and continuing with a Preliminary Economic Assessment. Tonopah is located on and utterly surrounded by mining claims and operations, active and inactive. The company owns the land on which the TLC resource is located, but to license a mine would require the project undergo the scrutiny of the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA.