Sustainable Energy

The Rush for Lithium Is On in Nevada

Prices for the metal have soared along with global demand for batteries, and a bonanza could be waiting beneath a valley in the desert.

Forget gold, silver, or copper. The new rush is for something far more precious: lithium.

Humans are increasingly thirsty for the metal, because it’s an irreplaceable component in the lithium-ion batteries that are used to power most mobile devices. Novel battery designs may appear almost weekly in the news, but in truth their development is slow and lithium-ion cells continue to dominate the battery landscape.

So as our insatiable desire for phones and computers—and, increasingly, electric cars and grid-scale energy storage—continues to grow unabated, so does our need for the elements required for battery manufacture. For now, at least, our clean-energy future relies upon it.

We’ve reported in the past that some of the materials that wind up in lithium-ion batteries, such as graphite and cobalt, are mined at no small human cost. Reports of the life-threatening working conditions miners often endure are enough to tempt even the most ardent technophile to consider Luddism.

But lithium itself faces another problem. The majority of lithium has traditionally been mined in Australia, Chile, Argentina, and China. Now, though, the world’s largest suppliers of the metal are struggling to keep up with demand, which means that prices have soared in recent years—at least doubling, while contract prices, which secure long-term deals for the material, are even quadrupling or quintupling.

So, as Bloomberg reports, prospectors have turned their gaze elsewhere—to Nevada. The Silver State has drawn fortune seekers for centuries, but these days miners have their eyes on the waters beneath Clayton Valley, which are rich in dissolved lithium. The hope is that the aquifers there can be drilled, their contents flooded into large pools, and water evaporated off to leave behind the precious lithium salts that everyone’s so desperate for.

According to the magazine, at least six new startups have recently taken on areas of land in the region, all of them keen to ride the wave of demand into profit. Unlike mining lithium from rocks, though, acquiring it through evaporation is difficult. Like a kind of giant chemistry experiment played out in a huge, flat pool, the process is delicate, and if carried out incorrectly, it can create low-quality crystals that nobody will want to buy.

If those difficulties can be surmounted, though, the state could be a new source for the raw materials required for us to transition into an all-electric future—and that could make it even more valuable than the gold rush of old.

(Read more: Bloomberg, “Why We Still Don’t Have Better Batteries,” “The Human Cost of the Lithium Battery Revolution,” “The Dark Origins of the Gold in Your Smartphone”)

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