Inside an extinct Nevada volcano, geologists have found what may be the world’s largest lithium deposit, which they estimate to be between 20 and 40 million tons.
Lithium is the metal that powers the mobile economy. Batteries for today’s smartphones, tablets, and especially electric vehicles demand it. The world’s supply is projected to fall short of demand for years to come.
The price of lithium jumped as much as sixteen-fold in the past three years, soaring from about $5,500 per ton in late 2020 to a peak above $80,000 in November 2022. Lithium closed at $23,060 on 18 September.
Currently, the world’s largest known lithium reserves are in Bolivia, with about 21 million tons. Argentina, Chile, the U.S, and Australia have the bulk of the rest. China holds only about 8 percent of the world’s reserves but processes about 70 percent of all raw lithium refined from ore.
The U.S. has only one small lithium recovery operation, pulling the mineral from brine in Nevada.
The volcano’s lithium is deposited in an unusual clay made up of the mineral illite, which holds a concentration of between 1.3 and 2.4 percent lithium.
That concentration is more than twice the usual amount of lithium found among other minerals.
“If you believe their back-of-the-envelope estimation, this is a very, very significant deposit of lithium,” Anouk Borst, a geologist at KU Leuven University in Belgium, told Science magazine. “It could change the dynamics of lithium globally, in terms of price, security of supply, and geopolitics.
“They seem to have hit the sweet spot where the clays are preserved close to the surface, so they won’t have to extract as much rock,” she noted, “yet it hasn’t been weathered away yet.”
Mining operations could begin as early as 2026 but it could take a decade for the first commercial lithium to reach the market.
“If they can extract the lithium in a very low-energy-intensive way or in a process that does not consume much acid, then this can be economically very significant,” Borst said. “The U.S. would have its own supply of lithium and industries would be less scared about supply shortages.”
TREND FORECAST: No matter how large the volcano’s lithium deposit is, collecting it is far from a done deal. As we have noted in previous Trends Journals, once it is discovered, it takes about a decade to mine lithium.
Also, the volcano and the area around it are sacred to several First Nations tribes, which have been protesting the prospect of lithium mining in the region for years. The area also is home to several rare and endangered species of birds and small animals, which has brought environmental activists into the fray.
The protests will add at least two years to the lead-up to the mining operation. As delays mount, Congress and the White House will be pressured to find a way to assert authority to open the mine as a national security issue.