Nevada's Vast Stores Of Lithium Could Fuel The Energy Transition. But At What Cost?
The Sony Handycam, of all things, foretold what may soon be a massive mine on public lands in Nevada.
In the early 1990s, the camcorder became the first product to use lithium-ion batteries commercially. Since then, the technology has been used to power our laptops, smartphones, and now electric vehicles and homes.
Some estimate the lithium-ion battery market will be worth more than $100 billion by 2027. Much of that growth can be attributed to the meteoric rise of electric vehicles, thanks in large part to Tesla.
And that makes lithium – specifically lithium carbonate, the industrial chemical made from lithium to make batteries – very valuable. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the average U.S. price was $13,000 per metric ton last year.
And there are tons of lithium – millions of tons – in Nevada.
“We're developing one of the world's largest lithium deposits,” says Alexi Zawadzki, CEO of Lithium Nevada.
He's talking about his company's Thacker Pass mining project in northern Nevada's rural Humboldt County.
The lithium here is in clay, rather than hard rock. So the company had to invent its own process to extract the material. Zawadzki says the investment is worth it.
“The deposit is big enough to justify developing its own process,” he says. “We have over 40 years of mine life here, supplying the entire U.S. demand.”
The company estimates that once the mine is fully operational, it'll supply a quarter of global lithium demand. But first, the raw lithium needs to be converted into lithium carbonate. The company is also hoping to build a processing plant on site.
Rich Perry is the former administrator for the Nevada Division of Minerals, which oversees the mining industry in the state.
“Major capital expenditures to build plants like that would be game-changers for Nevada,” he says.
The company estimates the mine would generate more than $75 million in new tax revenue for the state, in addition to an estimated $1.1 billion in overall economic impact.
Nevada already has the world's largest lithium-ion battery plant, the Tesla Gigafactory. And with more lithium mines and a processing plant, the state could establish itself as a global lithium powerhouse.
“If we could produce it from the ground and then make the battery here, we would get the value of the [supply] chain there, plus we would reduce our risk from supply chain disruption,” Perry says.
The industry could also help the state diversify its economy, something state leaders have been trying to do for years. Nevada was hit particularly hard economically by the pandemic and earlier in the Great Recession, given its heavy reliance on tourism and gaming.
Jan Morrison is the economic development officer for the Northeastern Nevada Regional Development Authority. She says the economic potential for the community is phenomenal.
“What gets you really excited is what it does for our kids,” she says.
She says mining is high-tech and high-paying, and she's hopeful young people here will stay closer to home instead of moving to areas like Silicon Valley for work.
“Jobs and careers that normally you wouldn’t think somebody in the rural area would be exposed to, this is going to be secondary nature to them,” Morrison says. “And they will have an advantage of these types of careers by being where these types of companies are.”
But the mine is controversial. Count Jhonna Bell among the people fighting the project. She's a cattle rancher in the area who says the mine will do more harm than good.
“It's right in the middle of our BLM range allotment where we run cattle. It actually splits our allotment in half,” she says. “It has a huge economic impact for us, because obviously you can’t run cattle where there is a mine.”
More than that, it's personal.
“I know that area, and I think it's a beautiful area, and I hate the thought of a mine moving in there,” she adds.
Bell believes the mine will change her community forever.
It's a classic Western battle over the balance between economics and impacts on the landscape. But now, the energy transition has those battle lines shifting.
Local impact, global benefit?
It's a brisk day in central Nevada, with the wind whipping through the ancient volcanic rocks of the Silver Peak Range.
I'm here with Patrick Donnelly. He's the Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
“We can go on top of the mountain, hell of a nice view up there,” he says.
But we're not here for the view. We're here for something a little less impressive, but what Donnelly says is of critical importance.
“Those are mostly buckwheats there,” he says. “We can go up and look at them, these low clumping plants.”
The Tiehm's Buckwheat is a rare wildflower that lives on just 21 acres of this area. As far as we know, it doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. And it's entire habitat lies within the project boundaries of the proposed lithium mine.
“This is the smallest population of buckwheat, the smallest subpopulation, so it's extremely vulnerable to disturbance,” he says.
Donnelly is concerned that the entire species could be wiped out, even before mining gets underway. His organization has petitioned to protect the species under the Endangered Species Act.
“We're in the middle of an extinction crisis,” he says, “and it's very clear human actions like mining have precipitated that extinction crisis.”
Ioneer Ltd. is the mining company behind this lithium project, called Rhyolite Ridge. It says it's spent more than three years collecting data in order to accurately count, understand and ultimately protect the species.
“A large part of the population and importantly the habitat that the population grows in, we are not touching,” says Bernard Rowe, Ioneer's managing director. “Not only are we not touching it with the proposed mining activities, but we'll also be protecting those areas.”
Rowe says the company plans to fence off habitat and is partnering with the University of Nevada, Reno to study whether the plant can grow in hot houses or be transplanted somewhere else.
Rowe says Ioneer is not trying to destroy any biodiversity. In fact, he insists the mine will ultimately help the planet.
“I don't think there's any doubt that if we're going to combat climate change, then we have to tackle CO2 emissions, and the gorilla in the room there is transportation,” he says.
As he sees it, the antidote is electric cars, and his mine could produce enough lithium for 400,000 electric vehicles every year.
“Getting up toward half a million electric vehicles, sourced from one domestic supply, is significant,” he says.
And it's in line with federal priorities. The Trump administration added lithium to the country's critical minerals list back in 2018.
That's boosted the prospects of proposed lithium mines in the region.
Back at the Thacker Pass lithium project in rural Humboldt County in northern Nevada, Edward Bartell said he’s concerned about what the mines will do to the community. He runs a ranch nearby and says the mine presents more environmental issues than it's worth.
“Originally, I was thinking, 'Well, lithium, that's great. We all need to be doing our part.' But then once I found out about the project, I'm horrified by it,” Bartell says.
His biggest concern is the amount of chemicals being used. According to the mining company's estimates, the process would create 2,900 tons of sulfuric acid every day at the start, and double that when it reaches full production. That process could lead to serious health effects if any of that material were to leach out into the air or ground or if there was an accident during transportation.
“I mean, it's not like we're just hauling lumber or something,” Bartell says. “It's pretty dangerous chemicals that are going to be hauled up and down the road, so if there's an accident or something, that could potentially impact people.”
Bartell started a website, stoplithium.com, to try to organize the community to protest the mine, but he says it's been challenging with the ongoing pandemic.
Alexi Zawadzki is the CEO of Lithium Nevada, the mining company behind the Thacker Pass project. He says he's not the enemy.
“I had an appreciation for climate change when it was still largely a theory, but I saw it happening firsthand living in the mountains, living above the treeline,” Zawadzki says.
Zawadzki says he got into this work because he saw what was happening to the planet and wanted to help. And he says this project will help limit environmental effects.
“The impacts of this project are justified for those reasons, the sustainability aspects we've incorporated into the design, but also what our products are going to be used for – and that is lithium batteries for electric vehicles and storage for renewable energy,” he says.
But are lithium batteries the only option?
A battery of energy solutions
Lithium-ion technology has a ton of potential for renewable energy. That's also why it can be dangerous.
“It poses additional risks because it stores more energy,” says Andrew Klock, who oversees emerging issues and training at the National Fire Protection Association. “The energy density of lithium-ion is higher than most other batteries.”
But even as lithium becomes more commonplace in vehicles, he's not too worried.
“Everyone asks me, 'Are electric vehicles more dangerous than gasoline vehicles?' Not really,” he says. “Every three minutes in the United States, there is a car fire, with a gasoline engine. Every three minutes.”
Plus, he says electric vehicles and other devices have great battery management systems that can alert users when a battery is overheating.
“My Android the other day told me I've got too many apps open. It’s overheating. Shut them down immediately,” he says. “So that's a good management system, right?”
But Donald Sadoway isn't so confident in lithium's safety record. He's a professor in the department of materials science and engineering at MIT.
“If you put the power of that phone, multiply it by 10,000 in close proximity, it's going to require more than just passive cooling,” he says.
He says lithium-ion is great for laptops and smartphones because you've got essentially one small battery cell. But once you start using more and bigger cells to power electric vehicles and store renewable energy, that's when you run into some issues.
“My feeling is when you get to very, very large format, the lithium-ion requires safety measures to be put in play so that you don't get thermal runaway, which could lead ultimately to fire,” he says.
And that's not just theory. Back in September, a large-scale energy storage project in the U.K. using lithium exploded and caught fire. And another in Arizona exploded last year, injuring nine first responders.
And Sadoway says it goes beyond safety. Lithium batteries don't last.
“In your phone and your laptop computer, on Day 1, you've got plenty of run time,” he says. “On Day 1 plus five years, it's not the same. It's as though every year your fuel tank on your car has been shrunk by 10%.”
“People want sustainability but no change in cost. They want sustainability but no change in habits,” he says. “So it's a tough bill to fill.”
At Invinity Energy Systems in the San Francisco Bay Area, CEO Larry Zulch is working on that challenge. He thinks another metal – vanadium – could be the answer.
“It's normally used to harden steel,” Zulch says. “Henry Ford used it in the Model T.”
His company is developing vanadium flow batteries for stationary energy storage.
But the chemistry isn't perfect here either. Unlike lithium, vanadium is not energy-dense, so the battery systems are bigger and heavier. Still, Zulch believes the positives outweigh the negatives.
“They are unlimited in their use,” he explains. “You don't wear them out by cycling them. You don't wear them out over time.”
And there are other significant benefits. Vanadium poses little fire risk, and Zulch says much of the world's vanadium supply can be found in existing industrial waste.
“There's enough out there that we can, in effect, mine our own residue of the past for a long time for vanadium,” he says.
There are some big players trying to solve this, too, not by giving up on lithium, but by seeing if they can solve some of its issues. Bill Gates and Volkswagen are backing one lithium battery startup. Data released by the company this month claims it only takes 15 minutes to charge up to 80% capacity – without some of the safety concerns.
But right now, all of these ideas are still in the potential stage. Larry Zulch says every option is on the table – in terms of battery storage and other renewable energy technologies.
“Lithium has a role to play. Hydrogen has a role to play. But what we need is to continue to push a new vision of the future,” he says.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.