A volcanic crater on the border between Nevada and Oregon is believed to contain an estimated 20 to 40 million tons of lithium, a critical raw material for producing batteries for electric cars. So, report several US media outlets.
With an estimated value of 1,5 trillion dollars of precious metal, the amount is almost double the lithium deposits found in the salt flats of Bolivia, previously considered the world’s largest lithium reservoir.
The discovery is a massive boost for the US, which would thus have its own lithium supply, while industries worldwide should fear less of a supply shortage. However, mining at the site is disputed by Indians, for whom the area is sacred.
Lithium-rich smectite clay
Geologists discovered the McDermitt Caldera, a supervolcano formed 16,4 million years ago when around 1 000 km³ of magma exploded outward. Clay containing up to 40 million metric tons of precious metal was identified throughout the 45 km long McDermitt Caldera.
The amount of lithium is based on estimates – no drilling has occurred. But scientists have found high lithium concentrations in the caldera since the 1970s and new analyses seem to confirm it, while the amount may be even more significant than thought. Geologists believe the eruption pushed minerals from the ground to the surface, which left lithium-rich smectite clay.
Sacred Indian land
Thomas Benson, a Canada-based Lithium Americas Corporation geologist, expects his company to start mining it in 2026. It will remove clay with water and then separate the small lithium-bearing grains from the larger minerals by centrifugation. The clay will then be leached into sulfuric acid vessels to extract lithium.
However, like everywhere else, lithium is mined, and mining plans are criticized for their environmental impact. The lithium extraction process uses much water, more than 500 000 liters per ton of lithium.
Moreover, the site is claimed to be on sacred Indian land. The Paiute, Shoshone, and Bannock tribes, part of the People of the Red Mountain organization, say there are 91 significant cultural sites in the area, linked to first food products, medicines, and hunting grounds for tribes past and present. The place is also known for two massacres. The organization is now trying to stop on the Oregon side of the caldera.
Over a year, producing 60 000 tons of lithium could devastate the surrounding environment – up to 30 million tons of earth needs to be dug. This is more than the annual amount of dirt dug up to produce all coal output of all but seven or eight US states.
Eight-fold increase needed to meet global demand
The US has only one small lithium-producing mine operation in Clayton Valley, Nevada. Current lithium production is mainly in the hands of Australia (47%), Chile (30%), China (12%), and Argentina (5%).
In Europe, Portugal has the largest lithium reserves. The country is also currently the leading EU producer of lithium, but it is, for the moment, only used to manufacture pottery and glass. Allier, in the center of France, also awaits one of the most promising mining fields for lithium in Europe.
With the Critical Raw Materials Act, the European Commission has also launched a plan to make Europe less dependent on third countries and make the supply of such critical raw materials more sustainable.
About one million metric tons of lithium will be needed to meet global demand by 2040 – an eight-fold increase from the total global production in 2022.