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Inside the rush to make Nevada the country's lithium capital

Alan Halaly, Las Vegas Review-Journal on

Published in Business News

ESMERALDA COUNTY, Nevada — Navigating the winding dirt path that may soon be paved for autonomous cars at Rhyolite Ridge is an easy feat for Bernard Rowe. He knows the prehistoric landscape well — and envisions its imminent, dramatic change better than anyone.

Rowe, a geologist and managing director of Australian mining company Ioneer, is one leader at the helm of Nevada’s lithium revolution. Since 2016, he and his company have invested more than $172 million in permitting a project in central Nevada’s Esmeralda County, about 65 miles southwest of Tonopah.

“You need to use your imagination,” Rowe told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, with ancient, multicolored mountains behind him that formed from once-active volcanoes. “But look around you: Basically everything here has lithium and boron, but it’s below us.”

About 6 million years ago, Rhyolite Ridge was under water. A lake about 1,000 feet deep dried up over time, leaving behind lithium- and boron-dense soil. It’s one of two deposits like it in the world.

The Ioneer project is one of more than 80 lithium mine proposals environmentalists are tracking, many of which are making their way through a lengthy permitting process, while accounting for shrinking availability of groundwater and potential effects to wildlife.

Lithium, which is used in the batteries found in electric vehicles, fits into the Biden administration’s clean energy transition, perhaps best exhibited through the Department of Energy’s first-of-its-kind conditional loan of up to $700 million for Ioneer’s project.

 

Nevada could be at the center of that change.

The lithium at Rhyolite Ridge is high-grade, too: Company leaders say it could produce 22,000 tons of lithium per year, which translates to the amount needed for roughly 370,000 electric cars. In its permitted area, it has enough lithium for 50 million electric cars, said Chad Yeftich, Ioneer’s vice president of corporate development and external affairs.

Mining companies like Ioneer hope to create a domestic supply chain of lithium in the U.S. The country produces less than a mere 2 percent of the world’s lithium, despite having more than 3 percent of the world’s reserves, according to the Institute for Energy Research.

Even though there has been interest in developing mines in Nevada over the past few decades, only one mine has made it through the extensive permitting process — Albemarle’s Silver Peak, of which operations lie on the other side of the mountain range.

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