Thomas R. Benson
This opinion column was submitted by Dr. Thomas R. Benson, adjunct research scientist at Columbia University and manager of global exploration for Lithium Americas Corp. These opinions are his and not those of LithiumAmericas Corp., its affiliates, their respective officers, directors, employees or any third party.
As a liberal environmentalist who spent his childhood and career learning about the Earth and the necessity of protecting it, I never thought I would feel compelled to write publicly about the importance of mining — let alone serve as the head geologist at a lithium mining company.
The United States and the rest of the world need lithium to ensure a sustainable energy future. But As Reuters recently outlined, the industry faces a “talent crunch” because of individuals who, like me at a younger age, had an unequivocally negative view of mining.
I distinctly remember my 7-year-old self in Yellowstone National Park watching the Old Faithful geyser erupting and being inspired by the fact that I was standing on top of one of the world’s largest volcanoes, watching it breathe! My fascination for the Earth led to a passion to research green energy solutions to the existential climate crisis.
It was during my Fulbright research in Iceland when I first learned that no clean energy resource is perfectly “green” or sustainable. For example, the volcanic processes driving geothermal power systems don’t last forever, and reinjecting geothermal fluids back into the earth comes with its own set of environmental risks. The more I learned about different energy resources, the more I came to realize that all the solutions we tout for combating climate change — batteries, solar panels, wind turbines, etc. — require mining.
This presents a major challenge for environmentalists. While movies like “Avatar” bias us to think all mining is evil, the fact is that oceans are rising, hurricanes are getting stronger, forests are burning and species are dying because of human-driven greenhouse gas emissions. We need to reduce our emissions before this global crisis becomes even worse — and we can’t do that without mining the materials necessary for greener energy technologies.
Lithium supply is outstripping demand
This was the reason I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in lithium research. With the increasing electrification in the automobile industry, the demand for lithium is on the rise. This is especially true in the United States. Many car manufacturers have announced plans of electrifying their fleets. This is almost the only thing that Republican and Democratic lawmakers can agree on. This is why there is a Projected shortage of lithium supply before mid-decade.
As I was looking for the right dissertation topic, a colleague pointed out a lithium deposit found in muddy sediments close to the Nevada-Oregon border. They are located in a cauldron of the McDermittCaldera supervolcano, which has been dormant since 16 million years ago. This bowl of lithium rich mud sits directly on top of the Earth.
My researchLithium Americas was interested in the project and was working to optimize the process of extracting lithium from the McDermitt Caldera sediments. This was done with a unique commitment not to have any negative environmental effects. It conducted almost a decade of environmental surveys and process optimization. Consultation with local communities, tribes, and other stakeholders was part of the design process. Thacker Pass ProjectThe federal government approved the 40 year lithium mining and manufacturing operation on public lands in December 2020.
Design for sustainability
This 21st-century design features a steam-powered extraction process that is carbon-free and uses steam-powered energy. It also includes plans to reclaim the pit as the mud is mined. It also includes extensive water recycling which results in a freshwater need lower than most ranching operations. And partnerships to improve sagebrush habitats in the western United States.
Inspired by the company’s commitment to sustainability, I now find myself in my dream job as the head of global exploration at Lithium Americas. Our global exploration efforts underscored my conviction that no other sedimentary resource on earth comes close to the size and grade of the lithium-rich volcanic muds of the McDermitt Caldera. Researchers at the University of Nevada Reno estimate that this could amount to as much as 120 million tonnes lithiumThese elements are found in the sediments of McDermitt Caldera’s whole McDermitt. Concentrations up to 1.2 % (by mass)In Thacker Pass. These numbers can be used to put the Earth’s average of Only 0.0001 percent lithium, Global demand for lithium is expected to rise from about 0.06 million tonnes lithium in 2020 to greater than 1.3 million tonnes lithium by 2040.
It doesn’t take a rocket (or volcano) scientist to see that the volcanic mud in the McDermitt Caldera presents a truly unique opportunity to help secure a large, high-grade domestic supply of lithium and combat the climate crisis simultaneously.
Mining critical metals is essential for a greener future, no matter how much Mother Nature loves us. We also have a responsibility for minimizing the impact on local environments by mining the highest quality resources using sustainable practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, Tom Benson —adjunct research scientist at Columbia University and manager of global exploration for Lithium Americas Corporation — and are not those of Lithium Americas Corp. or its affiliates or their respective officers, directors or employees, or those of any third party.