What You Need To Know:
In the global race for lithium, crucial for electric vehicle batteries, the US may have struck gold. A recent study in Science Advances reveals the McDermitt Caldera, a volcanic crater on the Nevada-Oregon border, likely holds an unprecedented 20 to 40 million metric tons of lithium.
This surpasses even Bolivia’s renowned salt flats, historically a lithium hotbed boasting about 23 million tons. Geologist Anouk Borst at KU Leuven University notes, “If you believe their estimation, this is a very, very significant deposit of lithium. It could reshape the global dynamics of price, supply security, and geopolitics.”
While most lithium comes from brine, the McDermitt Caldera’s lithium, especially in Nevada’s Thacker Pass area, is locked in clay. Formed from a colossal eruption 16.4 million years ago, it brought forth untold lithium and other metals.
With subsequent volcanic activity, lithium-rich hot brine surged into the existing smectite, transforming it into a uniquely lithium-rich illite. Borst notes, “They seem to have hit the sweet spot where the clays are preserved close to the surface, so they won’t have to extract as much rock, yet it hasn’t been weathered away yet.”
This find bodes well for mining. This particular illite is not only richer in the metal, but also supposedly easier to extract. Moreover, the deposits are mostly concentrated in the southern tip of the pass, minimizing the environmental impact of mining.
Depending on the methods, lithium extraction can emit substantial CO2 and contaminate groundwater.
For this reason, the project is controversial. Conservationists and Native American activists, deeming Thacker Pass sacred, have sought to halt mining operations, citing potential violations of environmental laws. However, their appeals were overturned by a federal court in July, and this week, workers have begun operations at the site.