Major discovery on Nevada-Oregon Border will redefine the electric vehicle industry
[Sept. 13, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]
Open-pit lithium mine in China. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)
In a breakthrough discovery that stands to reshape the dynamics of the electric vehicle (EV) industry, a lithium deposit, potentially the world's largest, has been found in a volcanic crater spanning the Nevada-Oregon border. Preliminary research suggests it could contain up to an astonishing 40 million metric tons of this invaluable metal, vital to battery production.
The deposit, nestled within the McDermitt Caldera, is estimated to house between 20 million to 40 million metric tons of lithium. To put this in perspective, this could nearly double the previous record, an impressive 23 million metric tons located beneath a Bolivian salt flat just this past summer, as published in the journal Science Advances.
This find not only reinforces the United States' position on the global lithium stage but also dramatically elevates it. Previously, the U.S. was estimated to have meager reserves of only about 1 million metric tons. The recent discovery could therefore boost the national reserves by an astounding 4000%.
Anouk Borst, a renowned Belgian geologist, commented on the monumental nature of this discovery, noting its potential implications for the global market. She told Chemistry World, “It could change the dynamics of lithium globally, in terms of price, security of supply and geopolitics.”
Elaborating on the national implications, Borst remarked, “The US would have its own supply of lithium, and industries would be less scared about supply shortages.”
Lithium, colloquially termed as "white gold," has been the centerpiece of the booming EV industry. With an increased demand for EVs, manufacturers have been anxious about possible shortages in the near future. Forecasters have even warned that supplies may not meet the rising demand as soon as 2025. This has ignited an international race, with countries like China, the U.S., and several South American nations competing to locate substantial deposits to secure their position in the growing EV market.
Paul A. Jacobson, GM’s chief financial officer, echoed these concerns during an investor meeting in June. “We’ve got to have partnerships with people that can get us the lithium in the form that we need,” Jacobson asserted, further revealing that General Motors has strategically invested in mining operations to mitigate potential shortages.
The lithium deposit recently found in the US McDermitt Caldera may be world’s largest possibly containing up to an astonishing 40 million metric tons of this invaluable metal. (CREDIT: Science Advances)
Underpinning this fervor for lithium is the U.S. administration's strong stance on clean energy. President Biden’s recent policy agenda ambitiously targets EVs to constitute about 50% of all vehicles sold by 2030. Further solidifying this commitment, the administration has proposed a hefty $7.5 billion investment in EV charging infrastructures nationwide.
Co-author of the groundbreaking study, Thomas Benson, a geologist associated with Lithium Americas Corporation, optimistically estimates that mining operations could commence at the McDermitt Caldera site by 2026.
Map showing type and relative size of global lithium resources. Current production is predominantly spodumene from pegmatites in Australia (47%) and brines underlying salt flats in Chile (30%), China (12%), and Argentina (5%). (CREDIT: Science Advances)
Offering insights into the geology behind the deposit, researchers from the Lithium Americas Corporation, GNS Science, and Oregon State University have explained the unique conditions that led to this vast reservoir. About 16 million years ago, the explosive volcanic activities in the McDermitt Caldera created perfect conditions for lithium-rich particles to form, resulting in this rich deposit.
However, while the discovery is celebrated by many, it has also reignited longstanding environmental and cultural concerns. Nevada, despite its lithium-rich landscape, has often been the epicenter of controversies surrounding its mining activities. Conservationists, Indigenous American groups, and even space agency NASA have voiced concerns about unrestrained mining.
In situ SHRIMP-RG analysis of Li-illite at Thacker Pass. Concentration of Li and Rb from three drillhole samples at Thacker Pass compared to composition of Thacker Pass smectite. The linear best-fit regression line through the illite data (black line) has a slope of 10.8 (equivalent to a Li:Rb molar ratio of ~120:1) and intersects the range of Li and Rb concentrations of clay concentrates from Thacker Pass smectite. (CREDIT: Science Advances)
Adjacent to the McDermitt Caldera site is the Thacker Pass mine, which has been embroiled in disputes, including protests from the native Paiutes tribe. Legal challenges have also surfaced over the past three years, slowing down mining activities.
NASA, in its endeavor to preserve undisturbed terrains vital for scientific research, expressed concerns about mining in the Railroad Valley tabletop flat. The pristine nature of this location is crucial for calibrating measurements of hundreds of satellites currently orbiting Earth.
As this discovery potentially reshapes the lithium market, the competing interests of economic growth, environmental conservation, and cultural preservation will continue to shape the narrative in the coming years.
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