By Michael D. White, author and freelance writer
Since the Comstock Lode of the late 1850s, Nevada—The Silver State—has been the source of countless millions of dollars worth of the precious ore dug from the scores of mines, large and small, that dot its landscape.
Fast forward more than a century and Nevada has found itself at the very forefront of a rapidly evolving new technology that has brought the state to a position, once again, of global prominence—electric vehicles.
A few weeks before Christmas 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring the federal government’s 600,000-vehicle fleet to shift to zero-emission power by 2035 as part of an effort to “catalyze America’s clean energy economy” and laying out the goal of electrifying half of the 17 million cars and trucks that forecasts say will be sold in the United States in 2030.
Politics aside, a surge in demand alone is driving market leader Tesla to prominence, while so-called ‘legacy’ automakers GM, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen, Subaru, and others recalibrate their operations to shift away from internal combustion to electric power.
This paradigm shift has ramped up demand for the key elements in the production of the high-density, rechargeable batteries that power this ‘sail-to-steam’ shift in transportation technology—primarily lithium. In fact, by 2030, U.S. battery producers are expected to need over 250,000 tons of battery-quality lithium carbonate annually.
Enter Nevada, stage right—site of one of the largest lithium deposits in the world, making the state the lynchpin in the nation’s future plans to power the mounting demand for fuel-efficient, high-performance, and low-emission vehicles
“Our goal is to complete the entire lithium supply chain process in Nevada from extraction to processing to fabrication and application to recycling as we rapidly approach the tipping point of electric car adoption,” said Michael Brown, Executive Director of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “This is a win-win for our state as renewable energy continues to evolve and climate change occurs.”
A “win-win” that fits neatly with the Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries’ plan to “establish a secure battery materials and technology supply chain that supports long-term U.S. economic competitiveness and equitable job creation, enables de-carbonization, advances social justice, and meets national security requirements” by the end of the decade.
According to Alexis Georgeson, VP of Communications & Government Relations at Redwood Materials in Carson City, Nevada, the battery recycling company— founded in 2017 by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel—is tripling the size of its operations in Nevada to scale up recovery of lithium and other metals for the makers of electric vehicle batteries.
Redwood “can recover, on average, 95 percent of the basic elements from batteries and using those raw materials back to remanufacture battery materials we can supply to U.S. battery manufacturers,” she says. The company recently announced that it will produce recycled copper foils for Panasonic, for use in battery anodes manufactured at the Tesla Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada.
“We’re creating a circular supply chain for electric vehicles and clean energy products, making them more sustainable long-term and driving down the cost for batteries,” she says. “We’re doing this by developing fully closed-loop recycling for lithium-ion batteries ahead of the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that will start coming off the road in a few years.”
A lithium development project in Nevada drawing a considerable amount of global attention is the Rhyolite Ridge project in Esmeralda County, located like the Thacker Pass venture on land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
According to Bernard Rowe, President and CEO of Ioneer, Rhyolite Ridge holds the largest lithium-boron deposit in North America, one of only two known in the world.
The company is in the last phase of acquiring final state and federal permits, says Rowe, a geologist by training. “We have a two year build. Our timetable has us hoping that we can start building at the end of this year or early next year. So, first production would be late 2024. As we ramp up, that will be the earliest, 2024 and into 2025.”
The total mine life is expected to be 26 years, and, most importantly, he says, addressing concerns that the operation will threaten local endangered plant species, “it isn’t a question of the mine operation or protecting the plant.”
The critical initial link in this supply chain is extraction—getting the lithium out of the ground with minimal impact on the surrounding environment.
Ioneer, he says, “is establishing protective buffer zones around them, and we’re staying away from them,” he says. “And we’ll make sure that other impacts that we might create will be mitigated. That really isn’t a difficult thing to do. We can have both and that’s what we’re working toward.”
There is a gap forming right now between supply and demand, and it “will widen precipitously over the next five to 10 years,” according to Tim Crowley, VP of Government Affairs at Lithium Nevada, a subsidiary of Vancouver, Canada-based Lithium Americas.
“And so unless there are really dramatic changes in production, there will be some who are on the losing end of that deal. We’re in the business of supplying the lithium chemicals that go into cathodes that will then go into batteries. The batteries will then go into these CDs or home storage or storage batteries. The way it’s projected right now, there will not be enough materials to fulfill anticipated demand.”
Lithium Nevada, though, is on the cusp of fulfilling a years-long effort to begin mining for lithium at Thacker Pass in Humboldt County, near Nevada’s border with Oregon, on public lands administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
When fully operational, the mine is forecasted to produce about 25 percent of the world’s lithium and have an operational life of at least 46 years.
“We’ve completed six years of environmental work and the lithium deposit stretches into ecologically sensitive areas that will not be mined,” says Crowley, adding that, in January 2021, Thacker Pass received a Record of Decision from the BLM, representing their final decision to approve the project and the final national-level permit required to start construction.
“Thacker Pass is critical for the U.S. to secure a domestic lithium supply,” he says. “It is designed to minimize the environmental footprint, by avoiding sensitive environmental habitat and employing the best available environmental control technologies. This effort was essential to ensure that our operations can optimize lithium yield while minimizing potential effects on natural resources in the area.”
At the same time, the company is expanding its footprint at its U.S. base in Reno with the addition of 30,000 feet of space to expand its Technology Center there.
“Over the past two years, we operated a small research lab in Reno and ran thousands of small-scale ore processing tests,” says Crowley. “In particular, the findings have allowed us to increase our projected lithium recovery by roughly 30 percent without using additional energy or water.”
The project, he says, “is uniquely positioned to play a key role in building an American-made lithium supply chain and has the potential to increase the U.S. lithium supply over 10-fold. That’s a huge leap forward toward meeting expected domestic demand, as well as creating good-paying jobs, reducing America’s overall carbon footprint and supporting the autoworkers building modern, efficient electric vehicles.”
As Lithium Nevada CEO Jonathan Evans has succinctly stated, “Nevada could power the U.S. electric vehicle industry.”
Sounds like a genuine ‘win-win’ for the Silver State, the nation, and the environment.
Bio: Michael D. White is a published author with four non-fiction books and well more than 1,700 by-lined articles on international transportation and trade to his credit.
During his 35 year career as a journalist, White has served in positions from contributor and reporter to managing editor for a number of publications including Global Trade Magazine, the Los Angeles Daily Commercial News, Pacific Shipper, the Los Angeles Business Journal, International Business Magazine, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Los Angeles Daily News, Pacific Traffic Magazine, and World Trade Magazine.
He has also served as editor of the CalTrade Report and Pacific Coast Trade websites, North America Public and Media Relations Manager for Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, and as a consultant to Pace University’s World Trade Institute and the Austrian Trade Commission.
A veteran of the United States Coast Guard, White has traveled in both Japan and China, and earned a degree in journalism from California State University and a Certificate in International Business from the Japanese Ministry of Trade & Industry’s International Institute for Studies & Training in Tokyo.