Nevada's Silver Peak Lithium Mine Prepares To Ramp Up Production
Anyone who uses a smart phone, tablet, cordless power tool, or even an electric car knows the device would not operate without its battery. The popularity of these gadgets is a big reason for the growth the lithium industry.
Anyone who uses a smart phone, tablet, cordless power tool, or even an electric car knows the device would not operate without its battery. The popularity of these gadgets is a big reason for growth in the lithium industry.
"The growth of lithium looks great," David Klanecky, Vice President of the Albemarle Corporation's Lithium Division said. "Batteries are going to be the major driver for us."
The only active lithium mine in North America is in Silver Peak, Nevada. The tiny Esmerelda County town is about 30 miles west of Goldfield. Albemarle extracts the area's lithium through the groundwater.
"We know how to extract lithium out of the brine here, and derivatize it into a highly valuable specialty material," Klanecky said.
The mine currently produces 3,500 metric tons of lithium per year, with the capability to produce 6,000 metric tons. The mine intends to increase its production as the demand increases.
"It is a reflection of Nevada's commitment to emerging technologies, to advance manufacturing and renewable energy production and this is the mine that produces the raw materials."
The salty groundwater is pumped to the surface in the Clayton Valley, and captured in a series of ponds that cover 4,100 acres. As the water evaporates, some of the salts and minerals settle on the ground and the lithium concentration gets higher. After the water goes through the series of pools and the solution is at the right level, it is pumped to the processing plant.
"It's just a very natural process and we do that here, we do it in Chile and it's currently the state-of-the-art technology for lithium extraction from a brine resource," Karen Narwold, Chief Administrative Officer for Albemarle Corporation said.
The mine uses 20,000 acre-feet of water each year. That is about the same as the annual average recharge in the aquifers. As the water soaks into the ground, it also leaches more lithium from the soil that winds up in the groundwater.
"Ultimately, we will see the lithium concentrations dilute, over time, just because we are pulling it out but the water does recharge annually," Narwold said.
It takes 18-24 months from the time the water is pumped to the surface, until the lithium carbonate is produced.
"We have to keep the water flowing," John Mayes, Silver Peak Mine Plant Manager said. "Otherwise, we have a gap and then the plant would have to shut down. So, it's really a continuous process."
The lithium carbonate is shipped from the Silver Peak Mine to Kings Mountain, NC, where it is converted to lithium hydroxide. From there, it is sold to Asian companies, who use it to produce cathodes, which are used to manufacture batteries and battery packs.
"Asia's got a 20-year head-start on a lot of countries right now because they've been really the founder of where lithium started," Klanecky said. "Especially, Japan and China and Korea."
While Tesla and Panasonic are making batteries and battery packs at the Gigafactory in Storey County, the lithium still has to go to Asia for cathode production, first. The growth in Nevada tech companies is still good for the mining industry, which accounts for 28,927 jobs in the the Silver State, with an average annual salary of $96,998. The Silver Peak Mine employs 80 full-time workers, and about 20 more contractors.
"This little town here in Silver Peak only has about 250 people living in it at one time, so we're pretty important," Mayes said.
Lithium is the choice for energy storage, and Klanecky expects that to continue for at least the next two decades as industry ion chemistry improves. The largest growth is expected to come in the transportation and clean energy sectors.