Thacker Pass: Huge US Lithium Reserve

A newly discovered US lithium reserve is the world's largest, but does it make sense to exploit it? What are the alternatives?
Reading Time: 3 minutes

A newly discovered US lithium reserve is the world’s largest, but does it make sense to exploit it? What are the alternatives? Image Unsplash.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A newly discovered US lithium reserve is the world’s largest, but does it make sense to exploit it? What are the alternatives?

A new US lithium reserve may be the largest known lithium deposit in the world. According to a new study, the McDermitt Caldera spanning the Nevada-Oregon border harbors an estimated 20-40 million metric tons of lithium locked within clay soils. With electric vehicle demand surging, this deposit could be a game-changer for US lithium production, but turning these mineral riches into an ethical, sustainable resource will require respectful, measured development and innovation.

Most lithium today is extracted from brines, but McDermitt’s is embedded in clay layers formed over millions of years from volcanic ash. This high-purity US lithium resulted from magma upwellings that infused the clays with mineral-rich hot fluids. Now, the concentrated deposits are primed for extraction by miners. Lithium is crucial for EV batteries, and automakers are racing to ensure supplies. Domestic production at Thacker Pass could establish a US supply chain less dependent on Australia, Chile, and China, but commercial production from these unproven clay deposits hinges on ethical development.

Responsible development will require balancing economic potential against conservation. The Thacker Pass mine has faced stiff opposition on environmental and cultural grounds. Nearby indigenous people view the land as sacred and contend the mine would damage artifacts and ancestral sites. Conservation groups argue it would harm wildlife, land, and scarce water resources.

Lithium mining has a checkered environmental track record, especially in Chile and Argentina. However, tight regulations and oversight can mitigate the impacts. Supporters contend Thacker Pass will boost domestic clean energy capabilities if executed prudently. Strict controls and planning must ensure its footprint stays limited. New technologies that make processing carbon-neutral and water-efficient will also be critical.

While global and US lithium demand and prices are currently high, the long-term outlook for mines like Thacker Pass is uncertain. Within a few years, analysts expect supply to exceed demand and possibly cause lithium prices to plummet. With high upfront costs, mines relying on sustained high prices could see margins evaporate. Currently evolving technologies also pose a threat to traditional mining’s cost competitiveness.

One innovation is recycling lithium from dead EV and electronics batteries. As volumes of battery waste grow, recycling could meet rising demand while slashing the need for new mining. Companies are quickly honing technologies to recover lithium and other materials from used batteries that are cheaper than mining virgin resources, and with batteries already concentrated in urban centers, recycling sidesteps mining’s environmental harms. If scaled up within forthcoming regulatory frameworks, recycling could supply over 50% of lithium by 2040, per some estimates.

See also: US Announces $192 Million in IRA Battery Recycling Funding.

Even before vast battery waste volumes arrive, emerging techniques like geothermal lithium production could start displacing mines. Vast lithium reserves are dissolved in hot subsurface brines brought up by geothermal power plants. New methods can extract this lithium, generating both renewable electricity and lithium from the same wells. While small-scale now, startups are actively honing technologies to commercialize geothermally located US lithium. This novel technique may seem like a niche source today, but it holds enormous potential.

The promise of urban battery recycling plants and geothermal wells producing lithium at scale presents a paradigm shift. The distant open-pit lithium mines rushing to start operations now may appear obsolete before hitting full stride. Their profitability could falter if emerging technologies rapidly mature.

Of course, recycling and geothermal cannot fully replace mining as battery and EV production grows globally. But innovations like these could profoundly reshape lithium markets within 15 years. The means that well before mines exhaust resources, new approaches may beat them on costs and sustainability.

So, while US lithium mines like Thacker Pass raise valid environmental concerns, basic market factors could also curb their long-term role. Before pursuing new large-scale mining, the coming impact of recycling and geothermal energy deserves serious consideration. The lithium sources powering the future seem more likely to be urban recycling plants and geothermal wells, not destructive, short-term extractive mining projects.

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