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March 26, 2017

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Lithium: How a mineral found in Nevada could power our future

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Steve Marcus

Waste salt, foreground, is shown by an evaporation pond during a tour of the Silver Peak lithium mine near Tonopah, Nev. Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.

Silver Peak Lithium Mine

John Mayes, site manager for the Silver Peak lithium mine,  looks over the mines evaporation ponds during a tour of the mine near Tonopah, Nev. Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. Launch slideshow »

What is lithium and why is it in Nevada?

Believed by cosmologists to be one of the first elements synthesized in the Big Bang, lithium is highly reactive and a natural conductor of electricity. It’s nearly ubiquitous throughout the planet but is particularly abundant in areas with a lot of geothermal activity and volcanic rock. Read: Nevada. “We have that nice combination of factors that produce a fair amount of lithium,” said Jim Faulds, geologist and director of the Bureau of Mines and Geology at UNR. Because of tectonic factors, the Earth’s crust under Nevada is stretched, bringing the surface closer to the hot mantle underneath. The warm geothermal waters rising from the deep mix with the mineral-rich rocks, leaching out the lithium to form subterranean bodies of briny water.

Long-term impact

With the right technological advancements, lithium could revolutionize the renewable-energy industry, with lithium-ion batteries providing a way to store unused power gathered from wind and solar for use at a later time.

How are lithium-ion batteries different from regular batteries?

These batteries operate much the same way as traditional batteries, but the reaction that creates the current is reversible, meaning the battery can be recharged. When charging, lithium ions move from the cathode through the cell and into the anode. After enough ions have moved, the battery is charged. Expelling power is just reversing this process: The ions travel back to the cathode, releasing the energy via electrons traveling through the circuit and powering the device.

How is it mined?

Global demand for lithium carbonate is more than 150,000 tons per year and rising, with most of the world’s stable supply coming from South America and Australia. However, Nevada is on the list of small operations and remains the only location in the U.S. currently extracting the metal.

It’s not mined in the traditional sense. There are no “veins” of lithium “ore.” Instead, companies pump briny water into man-made ponds and let nature take its course. As the water evaporates, minerals are left behind. When it’s time, the lithium-rich remnants are processed to produce lithium carbonate, a harmless-looking white powder and the key ingredient of the cathode that makes lithium-ion batteries possible.

1. Pumps pull lithium-rich brine from underground and deposit it into massive ponds.

2. The water is left to evaporate naturally over a period of months, leaving minerals behind. (The enormous amount of water pumped out of the earth and used in lithium processing has been linked to a decline in water tables, specifically at lithium mines in northern Argentina, where rainfall is already scarce, and there have been concerns raised in relation to lithium-ion battery production.)

3. Once the leftover mineral solution reaches the desired richness, it is pumped away.

4. The solution is processed at a plant to remove impurities and separate the lithium.

5. The lithium is treated with other chemicals to produce lithium carbonate (LCE).

6. The lithium carbonate is then prepared in massive bags and shipped.

7. Companies, mainly in Asia, make crucial battery components such as cathodes with LCE.

8. The components are then shipped back to the U.S. and used to build battery cells by companies like Tesla.

Aside from batteries, how is lithium used?

• As a flux agent during the creation of stronger ceramics and glass

• As an ingredient in lubricating greases

• As an additive in the casting of heavy metals such as iron and steel

• In salt form as a treatment for bipolar disorder

• To give fireworks a red color

Are there environmental impacts?

A 2013 study commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency explored the impacts of mining and processing components of lithium-ion batteries. They included “resource depletion, global warming and ecological toxicity — primarily resulting from the production, processing and use of cobalt and nickel metal compounds, which can cause adverse respiratory, pulmonary and neurological effects in those exposed.” A subsequent Wired article pointed to the practice in China of passing earth through acid baths to isolate minerals, leaving 99.8 percent of that soil contaminated.

Did you know?

Lithium is a light soft metal that can be cut with a knife. It’s also so reactive, it will burn while it floats in water.

Shannon Jackson’s boots scrape over a hardened rut of earth atop a mountain of mud and salt.

Jackson, a third-generation miner and husband of Nevada Mining Association Director Dana Bennett, spent more than 20 years around the rugged gold and silver mines of Northern Nevada, where huge drills and house-sized earthmovers are practically a way of life.

But things are different here in the Clayton Valley, 200 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The air is still and quiet. Evaporation ponds checker the desert like rice paddies.

“Looks like agriculture,” he says.

It’s an almost alien landscape. The only signs of civilization are nearby Silver Peak — more a sprinkling of trailers and shacks in the distance than a ‘town’ — and the contrails of jetliners crisscrossing the sky high above. To the jets’ passengers, the surface of the ponds must look like swirls of milk and molten turquoise, the product of algae in various stages of microbial bloom.

At ground level, everything seems massive and miniature at once, the product of nature’s leviathan scale. Where the waterline meets the shore, where the curve of the banded mountains blends the horizon, it all looks like it can fit in your hand. Far off, toward Silver Peak and an extinct cinder cone near the ghost town of Blair, mounds of black volcanic rock rise like obelisks out of the alkali playa.

Lithium.

The lithium mine in Silver Peak employs about 80 people and is owned by Albemarle, a North Carolina mineral company. It’s the only active commercial lithium mine in North America, and the company touts the product coming out as among the purest in the world. It’s processed in a modern facility tucked in the husk of an old mill near the town. At the end of the line, the lithium falls out of a conveyor belt into a trough under the gaze of Albemarle Vice President of Lithium David Klanecky, who keeps the “recipe” a closely guarded secret. “If we told you, we’d have to kill you,” Klanecky joked to a small group of journalists on a recent tour of the mine.

Buoyed by Nevada’s enormous potential reserve of lithium and the opening of Tesla’s Gigafactory nearly 200 miles to the north, 25 mining companies and investor-backed speculators have staked more than 13,000 placer claims, covering almost the entirety of the Clayton Valley and 18 hydrographic basins.

Meanwhile, the price for a ton of lithium carbonate has more than tripled since 2015. According to Deutsche Bank, global demand for lithium carbonate in the next decade could double to 534,000 tons a year. Analysts predict that lithium carbonate could become a $1.7 billion market by 2019.

The Clayton Valley is ground zero for what analysts call the “lithium rush.”

REINVENTING THE WHEEL

The technology driving modern car batteries, produced dirt-cheap from toxic concoctions of sulfuric acid and lead, was invented in the 1800s. The potassium hydroxide and ammonium chloride in your average household battery have, ever since the dry cell was invented at the end of the Civil War, been more the provenance of the reclusive chemist than the Silicon Valley genius.

“The issue with existing batteries is that they suck,” Elon Musk told fans and reporters gathered to hear the tech mogul’s next big announcement in 2015.

But for entrepreneurs like Musk, who founded the electric car company Tesla and co-founded solar energy company SolarCity, existing battery technology is not just unwieldy and ugly, it’s unworkable. So Musk staked his business on a better kind of battery, one with roots in Kawasaki, Japan.

Hidden among the city’s sprawling artificial reef of refineries, shipping canals and industrial plants is Kawasaki Works, one of chemical giant Asahi Kasei’s oldest workshops. It was here in 1985 that an unassuming scientist named Akira Yoshino put the finishing touches on a prototype that would alter the path of technology.

Building upon research from the late 1970s, Yoshino perfected the industry’s next big breakthrough: A stable, safe lithium-ion battery.

Asahi Kasei and Sony released the first commercial lithium-ion battery in the early ’90s. With the help of mass production, the technology became widely used in electronic devices, from mobile phones, tablets and cameras to flashlights and drills.

The advantage comes in lightweight, high-energy capacity and low energy usage. A lithium-ion battery can power energy-hungry devices for longer than a standard battery, charge faster and is easy to transport — think the difference between 1984’s brick-like Motorola DynaTAC and 2009’s Apple iPhone 3G.

“Lithium is becoming to batteries what silicon is to semiconductors,” The Economist proclaimed in a 2016 article. “In one form or another, the lithium-ion battery is the technology of our time.”

DEMAND AND SUPPLY

We may still be on the initial slope of the bell curve. In the mid ’90s, lithium-ion batteries accounted for a tiny fraction of total battery sales. Now, they are one-third of the market, second only to lead-acid batteries that come standard in most gas-powered vehicles.

Lithium-ion is making the biggest inroads in the automotive sector for a simple reason: demand. There are thousands of lithium-ion cells in the battery of the Tesla Model S, meaning tens of pounds of lithium per car. Compare that with the spoonful of lithium contained in products like phones and laptops.

Years of development have nearly halved the cost of producing the batteries for electric vehicles. From 2010 to 2015, sales of lithium-ion batteries nearly doubled because of automotive demand alone. Electric cars are now the largest market for the batteries, and while sales of them are only a fraction of car sales worldwide, experts predict they will account for 35 percent of all car sales by 2040. If the estimates are correct, the electricity needed to power electric cars worldwide will top 1,900 terawatt hours per year, enough energy to power the entire United States for 160 days.

And another industry is poised to have great demand: renewable energy. Sources like wind and solar are crucial to weaning the world off of destructive fossil fuels, but they suffer from the same storage problem as electric cars.

Take California. The Golden State has an abundance of energy during the day, when its massive solar farms are generating power along with the state’s traditional natural gas plants. But as families come home from work and school and start to use more electricity, power demand spikes at the same time that the output of solar farms flatlines. There is a fortune to be made by companies solving this problem.

“We think lithium is going to be around for quite a while,” Klanecky said.

When Musk took to that stage in Los Angeles to decry the state of battery technology, it was to announce his own solution. He unveiled the Tesla Powerwall, a lithium-ion battery pack that taps into the energy grid at every home and regulates power usage to offset demand during peak hours.

Tesla’s Gigafactory 1, erected to great fanfare in the desert near Reno, is set to be the sole producer of the company’s Powerwalls and lithium-ion car batteries for the foreseeable future.

This year, California energy officials installed 396 industrial-size lithium-ion Tesla batteries in Southern California. The installation can power 15,000 homes for about four hours, easing the grid during peak demand.

The potential of lithium-ion technology to disrupt the automotive and energy industries is clear. Less clear is how it will be accomplished. Factories producing the batteries are sprouting up around the world, but, just like electric cars can’t drive an inch without their batteries, the batteries themselves can’t hold a charge without lithium.

The mineral is produced predominantly in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, known as the “Lithium Triangle.” But almost all of the lithium intended for batteries ends up in Asia. While American subsidiaries of foreign companies, such as BASF and TODA, are making strides in cathode development, Japan, Korea and China have been on the cutting edge for years. Companies such as Panasonic, LG and Samsung, which benefit from Asia’s extensive high-tech infrastructure, engineer the lithium into cathodes before they send it back to the States for assembly into battery packs by the likes of Tesla.

“It’s hard to beat that,” Klanecky said.

But some are trying. Musk has noted the yawning technological gap between the United States and Asia. Tesla already has announced plans for another Gigafactory in Buffalo, N.Y,, which would produce solar panels for SolarCity, as well as several potential Gigafactories in Europe.

Musk puts it this way: “There are a hundred million new cars made every year. Just do the basic math: You don’t just need one Gigafactory, you need 200 Gigafactories.”

NEVADA’S MOTHER LODE?

The impact of the rush for lithium is less clear when it comes to Nevada.

Though companies are flooding into the state lured by the mineral’s promise, much of the activity right now is exploratory. Even state mining officials and scientists don’t know how much lithium we might have under our feet, due to the current lack of a statewide survey of the commodity.

“Lithium has not been studied in much detail in Nevada to really understand how much might be out there,” Faulds said.

Lithium reserves in Nevada would have to be significant to make a dent in a market dominated by South America and Australia. Even if they were, Bennett said, lithium is unlikely to be a major source of revenue for the state. The Silver Peak mine pays about $250,000 per year in mining taxes — half the proceeds from the relatively small limestone industry. If much of the lithium exploration turned out to be fruitful and production were quadrupled, it still would yield a fraction of the approximately $100 million the state receives from the mining of precious metals such as gold and silver.

And even though lithium-ion is in vogue, battery technology is advancing rapidly. Spurred by the potential of markets in electric vehicles and mass energy storage, scientists are experimenting to improve current lithium-ion technology as well as develop new types, such as flow batteries that use vanadium.

J.B. Goodenough, the 94-year-old scientist behind the discovery of the lithium-based cathode, revealed last month his work on a new kind of solid-state battery with a purported three times the energy potential of lithium-ion.

“Lithium is really sexy right now, but it’s not the only one at the beach,” Bennett said.

Nevada has no shortage of mineral wealth, and the possibilities of lithium are just one more reason for prospectors to dig.

“We don’t know what’s around the corner,” Bennett said. “Five years ago, we would not have had this conversation.”

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