It’s dubbed the “new white gold” because of its market value and silver hue. It’s also responsible for keeping electric cars on the road. Why is it so valuable? Lithium-ion batteries (Li-Ion) combine high-temperature performance, high power-to-weight ratio, energy efficiency, and minimal self-discharge. Li-Ion parts can also often be recycled.
Until now, lithium deposits in Bolivia were thought to be the world’s largest. A deposit of lithium located on the Nevada–Oregon border, however, seems to have that beat. Estimates are that 20 to 40 million tons of lithium metal are within a volcanic crater formed approximately 16 million years ago. Volcanologists and geologists from Lithium Americas Corporation, GNS Science, and Oregon State University reported their findings in a recently published paper in Science Advances.
According to geologist Anouk Borst at K.U. Leuven University and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, the deposit “… could change the dynamics of lithium globally, in terms of price, security of supply and geopolitics.”
Analysis of the site shows an unusual claystone, composed of the mineral illite, has 1.3% to 2.4% lithium in the crater, almost double the lithium in the main lithium-bearing clay mineral, magnesium smectite, more common than illite. Researchers proposed that a layer of illite around 40m thick was formed in lake sediments, and the fluid moved upwards along fractures formed with volcanic activity, transforming smectite into illite in Thacker Pass, the southern part of the crater. The result is a claystone rich in lithium. Notably, the clays are preserved close to the surface, so they will not need to extract as much rock. Until now, the U.S. had only one minor lithium-producing brine operation in Nevada.
Mining is expected to start in 2026 and will involve removing clay with water and separating lithium-bearing grains from larger minerals using centrifuging. The clay will then be leached in vats of sulfuric acid to extract the lithium. If the lithium can be extracted in a low-energy-intensive process that does not consume much acid, the economic impact could be significant. The U.S. would have its own lithium supply, and industries would be much less worried about its availability.