Lithium Exploration and Development
Nevada lithium to secure US supply chains
Not only is Nevada home to the only lithium producer in the US, but the state has also seen a massive increase in “white oil” exploration in the past few years. As societies move towards electric vehicles (EVs) and the US government seeks to secure the domestic supply chain of critical minerals, exploration in this sphere is booming. According to the Nevada Division of Minerals, as of December 1st, 2021, an estimated 10,989 active placer claims had been located in Nevada, presumably for lithium brine in 18 different hydrographic basins.
Nevada currently hosts two of the most advanced pre-production lithium projects in the US. Not far away to the west of Albemarle’s Silver Peak mine, ioneer’s Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron project is expected to start production in late 2024. A definitive feasibility study (DFS) was completed in April 2020, which confirmed Rhyolite Ridge as a world-class lithium and boron project that is expected to become a globally significant, long-life, low-cost source of lithium and boron vital to a sustainable future. “The DFS confirmed our ability to produce approximately 22,000 mt/y of lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, and 174,000 mt/y of boric acid, for 26 years,” explained Bernard Rowe, managing director of ioneer.
Rhyolite Ridge will be an open pit mine, which will extract both lithium and boron from sedimentary rock using sulphuric acid. According to Rowe, the project will become the lowest-cost lithium mine in the world; this is because boron will account for about 30% of the project’s revenue and cover approximately 70% of the costs.
"The potential for lithium in Nevada is remarkable, and the state will become the biggest lithium producer in the world in 10-15 years thanks to the richness of the claystone resources."
Michael Kobler, CEO, American Lithium
If everything goes according to plan, ioneer will start construction in the second half of 2022. Then, it will undergo a two-year build period, in which the company will effectively transition from a developer to a producer, starting to contribute to the growing lithium demands of the country. “While our project will quadruple lithium production in the US from 5,000 to 27,000 mt and make a substantial contribution, we will still need 20 projects like this one to reach the expected demand,” Rowe pointed out.
Near the Oregon border, the Canada-based Lithium Americas also expects to transition from developer to producer soon. The company’s Thacker Pass, an advanced-stage lithium development project, received a Record of Decision in January 2021 from the US Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and by the end of the first half of 2022, expects to have all permits and appeals cleared, news on the partnering and financing process, and engineering work completed.
In October 2021, Lithium Americas updated Thacker Pass’ measured and indicated resource, which was close to 14 million mt. “This is the largest resource in North America by far at this point,” expressed Jonathan Evans, president, and CEO of Lithium Americas.
The project’s production capacity is designed to reach 60,000 mt/y of battery-quality lithium carbonate and a 46-year mine life.
Another company that is progressively gaining terrain in Nevada’s lithium arena is American Lithium, which is advancing its Tonopah Lithium Claims (TLC) project, located near the town of Tonopah in Nevada, in the same geological environment as Albemarle’s Silver Peak lithium mine.
In 2020, the company announced a large initial resource estimate, including 5.37 million mt lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) in the measured and indicated category as well as 1.76 million LCE in the inferred category. In January 2022, American Lithium reached a major milestone when it received the approved Plan of Operations and reclamation permit approvals to commence drilling at TLC, enabling the launch of a major development program. “Our near-term goal is to engage a firm to carry out a PEA in the first quarter of 2022. We have started evaluating in-depth recovery methods, and since we have multiple economical extraction options, we are in the process of deciding which one is the best,” stated Michael Kobler, CEO.
“When you compare the lithium market to the gold or oil market, it is still relatively small despite unprecedented growth. The fundamentals underlying the lithium narrative have coalesced recently in a short period of time, however, which is exciting for the future.”
Emily Hersh, CEO, Luna Lithium
Addressing environmental concerns
As the US aims to encourage domestic production of lithium and other critical minerals, companies seeking to develop lithium reserves on public lands are often faced with permitting challenges and opposition from stakeholders. In Nevada, plans to establish lithium mines have often encountered a surge of resistance from tribes, ranchers, residents and activists who argue that the repercussions of lithium mines will outweigh lithium’s contributions to the nation’s transition to less-polluting energy sources than fossil fuels.
This has been one of the major setbacks for Lithium America’s Thacker Pass. For almost eight months, environmental and tribal activists have been protesting against the construction of the mine, significantly delaying the company’s plans. Opposition stemmed from the project’s expedited approval, which opponents argue did not include a thorough enough environmental impact statement and minimized its environmental consequences.
Companies looking to establish lithium mines in Nevada are therefore designing their projects in a way that can minimize their environmental footprint. ioneer, for example, decided to take a different approach to most lithium brine operations which use evaporation ponds. To concentrate the lithium, the company will leach the lithium out of the rock and then concentrate it in sealed tanks by heating and evaporating the water. “As the steam comes off, we will capture this steam and condense it back into water. This way, about 50% of all our water will be re-circulated,” Rowe explained.
ioneer will also power the entire operation through a sulphuric acid plant, eliminating the need of connecting the mine to the grid, gas pipeline, or other energy sources. The plant will convert sulphur into commercial grade sulphuric acid, used to leach lithium and boron from the crushed rock. The heat released in the process will be recovered to produce steam for electricity, resulting in zero CO2 emissions.
Similarly, Lithium Americas has identified ways to reduce water consumption by approximately 50% through extensive recycling. The company has also proposed a heat recovery system designed to turn waste heat into carbon-free electricity, generating power for the mine and chemical processing facility. In the long term, Lithium Americas’ goal is to achieve carbon neutral operations at Thacker Pass. “In terms of air emissions, we utilize the best available control technology that allows us to emit less than 50 tons per year, making us one of the best plants in the US,” stated Jonathan Evans, president and CEO.
Despite innovative measures to reduce the negative environmental impact of lithium extraction, the ongoing litigation and protests at the Thacker Pass illustrate the debate surrounding lithium operations in Nevada and future proponents can anticipate similar challenges. In addition, Nevada’s permitting process is lengthy and raises a multitude of issues with water, air, wildlife and cultural resources, which means it takes many years to put lithium mines into production. Though Nevada has a remarkable lithium potential, these issues raise serious questions about the ability of the US to keep up with its growing lithium demand and electric dreams.
Image courtesy of Lithium Americas