With increasing emphasis on renewable energy, the mining industry is looking towards developing lithium reserves in the United States. Currently, a single operation near Silver Peak, Nev. is the only producing lithium mine in the United States. As governments mandate reduced vehicle emissions, exploration in this sphere is booming. But does America have the mineral reserves to keep pace with this renewable boom?
The answer, as always, is complicated. The majority of lithium on the market is mined in the "Lithium Triangle" in South America, encompassing parts of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Regulations and laws in those countries allow for less expensive development than in the United States, but often with environmental costs. As we look to encourage domestic production for national security and ethical reasons, mining companies seeking to develop lithium reserves on public lands are faced with both permitting challenges and opposition from stakeholders. On one hand, harnessing and storing renewable energy is critical in the battle against climate change. But on the other hand, it comes with environmental and social costs to the communities where the raw materials for this storage are located. The ongoing litigation and protests at Thacker Pass illustrate this debate and future project proponents can anticipate similar challenges.
Nevada has become the center of the lithium boom not only because it has the only domestic producing mine, but also due to the Tesla Gigafactory. This gigantic battery production facility is located 30 minutes from Reno-Sparks, Nev. and supports Tesla's battery-powered vehicles. With a new Gigafactory being built in Austin, Texas, demand for lithium will continue to increase. Lithium is extracted in two ways (generally): (1) from lithium brine reserves underground, or (2) from hard rock deposits. Lithium is a very reactive element, which makes the technical aspects of these projects deposit specific. Most brine projects extract the solution from underground by drilling and pumping and then concentrate the solution by placing it in solar ponds. After the water evaporates, the solution is pumped from the pond and then processed with chemicals at a plant to form the finished product. The operations in Silver Peak, Nev. use this process. Some companies are experimenting with direct extraction processes that would bypass the solar ponds, requiring less surface acreage and hypothetically fewer environmental impacts.
Hard rock projects operate similar to traditional hard rock mine projects, where the rock is removed from either an open pit or underground, crushed, and a chemical process is applied to produce the desired compound. But opponents cite traditional concerns about open pit mining and the manner in which the chemical processes leech the ore from the rock (which may include sulfuric acid).
But with either technology, the permitting process is lengthy and raises a multitude of issues with water, air, wildlife and cultural resources. If our timelines for other mineral projects hold true in the lithium sphere, we can anticipate at least four to 10 years before any of these projects, besides Silver Peak, are producing. That assumes they are not dragged into litigation after agency approval. While Silicon Valley and Washington D.C. have big plans for renewable technology, unless we do something to fast-track development of lithium mines domestically, we will continue to rely on minerals from other countries—and have those communities bear the environmental impacts—to support our nation's electric dreams.
Originally published June 8, 2021
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