A general view shows the brine pools of Albemarle Chile lithium plant placed on the Atacama salt flat.
REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado/File Photo
Scientists measured significant levels of lithium trapped in clay deposits in an extinct US volcano.
The US mostly relies on lithium imports, which it uses for rechargeable batteries in electric cars.
Lithium independence would be a game-changer for clean energy but Native Americans are already suffering for it.
The name McDermitt Caldera is probably unfamiliar. It belongs to an extinct volcano that last erupted approximately 16 million years ago. But for lithium hunters, it’s the biggest gold mine find of the century.
In 2020, scientists published a shocking discovery that the caldera contains what could be the largest amount of lithium in the world, locked up in an unusual type of clay called illite.
Recent research has gone one step further. In August, researchers reported that the illite in the southern portion of McDermitt Caldera, called Thacker Pass, contains about 1.8% lithium, on average.
That’s almost double the lithium present in magnesium smectite, the main type of clay mined for lithium, today, Chemistry World reported.
This means a couple of things: McDermitt Caldera, located along the Nevada-Oregon border, could contain over 132 million tons of lithium — enough to meet global demand for decades, Jalopnik reported.
It also means the US, which only has one active lithium mine, may no longer have to rely on other countries for much of its lithium.
The US has an estimated 8 million metric tons of lithium embedded in its soil, ranking it in the top five countries worldwide with the most reserves, yet the country makes up just 1% of global lithium production, according to Minerals Make Life.
And demand for lithium is only expected to soar since it’s a key ingredient for rechargeable batteries used in electric vehicles.
The country needs more lithium to keep up with supply chains for electric vehicles. And McDermitt Caldera could be that resource.
“It could change the dynamics of lithium globally, in terms of price, security of supply, and geopolitics,” Anouk Borst, a geologist at KU Leuven University and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, told Chemistry World.
There’s just one thing: local Indigenous communities say Thacker Pass is sacred land where they harvest traditional medicines, foods, and supplies for sacred ceremonies, The Guardian reported.
“There’s burial sites there. There’s medicines and roots there, there’s ecosystems – there is still life back there,” Gary McKinney of the Shoshone-Paiute Indigenous tribe local to Thacker Pass, told Al Jazeera. “And it’s all being sacrificed supposedly to fix the climate crisis.”
McKinney is part of the Indigenous group called People of Red Mountain that has opposed lithium mining at Thacker Pass.
But a federal court denied opponent’s requests for an injunction, and in March the company Lithium Americas said workers had started drilling and building infrastructure at the site, Al Jazeera reported.
“The world needs to know that this lithium mining, and this fast-tracking of lithium mining, is a continuation of racism on Paiute and Shoshone people,” McKinney told NPR.
Lithium extraction methods can lead to water pollution, land degradation, and potential groundwater contamination, per Earth.org. An estimated 79% of lithium reserves in the US are within 35 miles of Native American reservations, according to the MSCI Sustainability Institute.