Mining is still an important part of the Silver State’s economy, a century-and-a-half after some of the state’s first mining claims.
Nevada produces almost 15 percent of the country’s minerals. But there’s one mineral produced here that is found in only a few places in the world.
Nevada has North America’s only operating lithium mine. It’s only a few hours from Las Vegas and 8 News NOW toured it.
It’s about three-and-a-half hours northwest in Esmerelda County.
The Silver Peak mine is an old silver mine operating from 1864 through the early part of the 20th century. In 1966, the mine picked back up after miners discovered lithium in the water and half-a-century later, it’s still going strong.
And with major lithium consumers like Tesla and Panasonic needing more and more of the mineral, the mine is set to be around for a long time to come.
The Clayton Valley looks like an oasis in the desert. Thousands of acres of ponds, reflecting the snow-capped mountain peaks ringing the valley. It’s an oasis of sorts — an oasis of lithium.
“I think this is a special resource, right, and one of the most special ones in the world,” said David Klanecky, vice president, Albemarle.
The Silver Peak mine, southwest of Tonopah looks almost nothing like a mine. There’s lithium in the groundwater there. It’s pumped into large pools where evaporation kicks in. After 12 to 18 months, the brine in the ponds is concentrated enough for factory processing into lithium carbonate.
“It’s quite unique, we are the only lithium mining operation, if you will, in North America,” said John Mayes, plant manager, Silver Peak mine.
“Lithium has been produced from this mine since the 1960s,” said Dana Bennett, president, Nevada Mining Association.
Lithium has been used in batteries for 25 years. But with electric car companies like Tesla producing massive batteries for its vehicles, Nevada Mining Association President Dana Bennett says the importance of the Silver Peak mine will only get bigger.
“Certainly, with the growth in technology, in battery technology, and battery storage, lithium is becoming more and more important to our daily lives,” Bennett said.
Right now, the mine can produce up to 6,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate a year. But realistically, it produces a little under two-thirds that amount.
North Carolina based Albemarle now runs the mine. Vice President David Klanecky says expanding the mine is possible as the company aims to produce 50 percent of any future lithium demand.
“As we look at the resources like Silver Peak and other resources around the world, we’re really trying to stage that to match the growth of the industry,” he said.
The demand for lithium worldwide last year was some 185,000 metric tons and that’s expected to nearly double by 2020. Governor Brian Sandoval is calling for the Trump administration to allow Nevada’s mining industry to explore all options.
“The key to growing our mining industry is the continued opposition to restrictive federal rules related to public lands,” Governor Sandoval said.
Other companies have claims in the Clayton Valley along the perimeter of Albemarle’s property, but none have panned out and the Silver Peak mine has the senior water rights in the area which company officials say will keep it prosperous for years to come.
“We’re going to be here for the next 50 plus years, most likely, running this business and developing lithium for the industry,” said Klanecky.
At other locations, mining companies also produce lithium hydroxide. That’s what the Silver Peak mine’s lithium is converted to at Albemarle’s North Carolina headquarters before being sent overseas to be processed into the components that places like Tesla’s gigafactory use to make battery cells and battery packs.
Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler and Democratic State Senator Pat Spearman are currently working on a bill to promote and encourage developing lithium mining in Nevada.