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US volcano yields potentially largest-ever lithium deposit discovery

New Lithium deposits found in US

A groundbreaking discovery of lithium deposits along the Nevada-Oregon border is poised to revolutionize the global lithium market, potentially satisfying the ever-increasing demand for this crucial metal. In a recent analysis, it was estimated that this deposit contains between 20 to 40 million tonnes of lithium metal, surpassing the previously regarded largest deposit beneath a Bolivian salt flat. This remarkable finding has the potential to reshape the dynamics of the global lithium industry, impacting pricing, supply security, and geopolitical considerations.

Unique characteristics

The unique characteristics of this volcanic deposit contribute to its extraordinary richness in lithium. The deposit is situated within the McDermitt caldera, a geological formation that emerged approximately 16 million years ago following a massive volcanic eruption that expelled around 1000 cubic kilometers of magma. Within the caldera, lithium-rich volcanic materials, along with sodium, potassium, chlorine, and boron, quickly cooled to form a finely crystalline volcanic rock known as ignimbrite. Over time, this rock weathered, leading to the formation of particles enriched with lithium.

A lake subsequently developed within the caldera, persisting for hundreds of thousands of years, accumulating clay-rich sediments at its base from weathered volcanic and surrounding materials. The groundbreaking analysis reveals that after the lake drained, another phase of volcanic activity exposed these sediments to a hot, alkaline brine rich in lithium and potassium.

New findings

The pivotal finding challenges previous assumptions that illite, a specific clay mineral, existed extensively within the caldera due to the transformation of smectite under high temperatures and pressures. Instead, the research suggests that a layer of illite, approximately 40 meters thick, developed within the lake sediments as a result of exposure to the lithium and potassium-rich brine. This unique geological process ultimately led to the formation of a claystone rich in lithium, a material that resembles brown potter’s clay in appearance but holds an exceptional concentration of lithium.

Christopher Henry, an emeritus professor of geology at the University of Nevada in Reno, highlights the significance of this discovery, noting that the United States currently relies on a single small lithium-producing brine operation in Nevada. The dearth of domestic lithium production has prompted extensive searches for additional deposits, making the identification of the Thacker Pass deposit all the more consequential.

While some experts, like Henry, have raised questions about the proposed timeline for the crater’s history, the potential implications of this discovery are undeniably substantial. Lithium Americas Corporation, the company overseeing the Thacker Pass deposit, anticipates commencing mining operations in 2026. Their approach involves the removal of clay using water and the subsequent separation of small lithium-bearing grains from larger minerals through centrifugation. The extracted clay will then undergo a leaching process in sulfuric acid vats to isolate the lithium.

Opportunities ahead

One of the most promising aspects of this discovery is the prospect of extracting lithium in an energy-efficient manner with minimal acid consumption. Achieving this would have significant economic implications, potentially providing the United States with a reliable domestic source of lithium. Industries reliant on lithium could enjoy greater confidence in supply stability.

Anouk Borst, a geologist at KU Leuven University and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, underscores the transformative potential of this discovery for the United States and the global lithium market. With lithium’s essential role in batteries and renewable energy technologies, securing a substantial domestic supply could enhance energy security and support the transition to clean energy sources.

Furthermore, this finding prompts exploration efforts to uncover additional lithium-rich deposits following volcanic eruptions. The focus will be on calderas with lake sediments that have undergone hydrothermal alteration in lakes with no outflows, as these geological conditions appear to foster the development of valuable lithium resources.

This remarkable lithium deposit discovered along the Nevada-Oregon border has the potential to revolutionize the global lithium market. Its unique geological history and composition present an opportunity for the United States to establish a robust domestic supply of lithium, ultimately benefiting industries reliant on this critical metal and advancing the transition to clean energy technologies. The implications of this discovery extend beyond economics, influencing pricing dynamics, supply security, and geopolitical considerations in the global lithium landscape.

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