The debate on whether to permit lithium mines in Nevada has wide implications for the local, state, national and international communities. Few educated persons would argue that climate change is not a critical problem for long-term sustainability of the planet, and I concur. Global warming/climate change is the most critical environmental threat for current and future communities, and those very negative changes are becoming increasingly evident particularly in those northern aboriginal communities that are being forced to locate from their homes due to melting of the permafrost. Even in recent days, record high temperatures in the West have been recorded, and while record temperatures have always occurred throughout the world, most will notice that we have very many more “high” record temperatures than “low” record temperatures. This is but one of the many signals that are being observed that indicate that our climate is changing and will affect all of us.
The transportation sector produces from 15-30% of the carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere from internal combustion engines, depending on what is included in that value. While many reports will differ, approximately 15-20% of raising temperatures globally result from normal automobiles that we use on a daily basis. Most climate scientists will argue that this component must be reduced in order to begin the process of slowing global warming.
Lithium is the critical metal that will allow cars to be powered by stored electricity, since lithium is the lightest metal (atomic weight of 7), and has the necessary electrical properties to function as a battery with sufficient energy storage to allow long distance travel. Other metals are also important for batteries, particularly cobalt, nickel, manganese and iron. While cobalt and nickel, in particular, have their own set of environmental and cultural concerns, the cathodes and anodes in the batteries can increasingly be made out of other materials. But, there is currently no effective substitute for lithium. Lithium is the critical metal required for transportation batteries.
Nevada is currently the only state in the United States that produces lithium, which is the Silver Peak mine in Clayton Valley. This is a brine deposit, where very salty water is pumped to the surface and processed in a manner where lithium is selectively crystallized as a compound called “lithium carbonate.” Both this material, and lithium hydroxide, are commonly used in transportation batteries. This brine lithium source currently produces approximately 4000-5000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent, which is the same as about 750-950 tons of lithium metal. The Thacker Pass Mine is projected to produce up to 60,000 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent, which is equivalent to approximately 11,000 tons of lithium metal.
Australia is the largest producer of lithium, at about 42,000 tons of lithium metal per year, and the entire world, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, produces approximately 80,000 tons of lithium metal, which is the same as a bit over 420,000 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent. While predictions vary, the world will need 3 to 10 times more lithium than is currently produced. Recycling of lithium will also need to be an important component of battery use and reuse, and currently is not being done with anywhere near acceptable percentages.
The U.S. does not produce much lithium, although it will very likely be one of the largest consumers of lithium in the next 10 years. Effectively all mines disturb natural lands, and the Thacker Pass mine is no different, except that the mining, processing and closure issues of this clay lithium mine is much less disturbing than what we have observed for gold, copper and many other base metal mines. In fact, the Thacker Pass lithium mine is the most benign large mine that I have examined in the past 40 years. More on that later, but on balance, this is a mine important for Nevada and the U.S. and critical as a domestic source of lithium to help mitigate the global environmental problems of climate change that are now increasingly evident.
Glenn C. Miller, is Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Natural Resources and Env. Science, University of Nevada Reno.
Top photo caption and credit: The proposed site of the Thacker Pass lithium mine in north-central Humboldt County, Nevada on May 4, 2021 – photo: Bob Tregilus , CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
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