(CN) — The Lithium Rush is on in Nevada.
Well, kind of.
At present, there is one lithium carbonate mine operating in the state. It’s actually the only lithium-producing mine in the entire United States.
It’s located just outside of Silver Peak, a town of about 142 people located in the heavy mineralized Clayton Valley near the state’s border with California about 20 miles southeast of Tonopah, and three hours drive south of Reno.
Mike Catlett was born in Silver Peak in the 1960s, when the lithium mine started and greater mining activity in and around Esmerelda County meant there was more bustle about town. On a Monday in May, he stands in the dirt lot he owns replete with deconstructed pickup trucks, abandoned trailers given over to rust surrounded by a couple of eviscerated refrigerators.
The brown craggy mountains, characteristic of Nevada’s particular basin and range landscape, rise up all around the town as Catlett talks about how the proposed lithium mines on Rhyolite Ridge, located about 20 minutes drive up a dirt road into the Silver Peak Range.
“It would be great for the town,” he said, after asking me rather pointedly why I was wandering around his property. “It would create jobs.”
Catlett owns the Old School Saloon on the main thoroughfare through town and business has been far from brisk as evidenced by its slightly dilapidated sheen.
“I am almost out of business,” he said.
The current lithium mine — it’s more like a series of evaporation pools than a traditional hard rock mine — is run by Albemarle Corporation and employs about 100 people.
Yet, if two of the proposed mines in the area come on line, Cartlett could see the return of the type of hubbub that once reigned in the region.
When silver was first discovered in Esmeralda County in the 1860s, the region was the center of the American West. Wyatt Earp and Virgil Earp once patrolled the streets of Goldfield, Nevada — about 30 miles away from Silver Peak. Max Baer, one of the great heavyweight boxers of the early 20th century, fought a high-profile bout in Silver Peak in 1939. But the glory of those days has faded.
The entire population of Esmerelda County is little more than 1,000, according to the 2020 census.
But lithium mining could change all of that.
“Rhyolite Ridge is the most important lithium project in Nevada,” said James Calaway, the CEO of Ioneer, an Australia-based lithium-boron producer. “It’s not just for the state, the project is necessary for America’s supply chain and its effort to electrify its transportation system.”
Ioneer’s project on Rhyolite Ridge is one of more than 40 major lithium mining projects in the approval pipeline in Nevada alone, with more than 15,000 outstanding lithium placer claims filed with the Nevada Division of Minerals.
Lithium, the third element on the periodic table, has an assortment of industrial uses, ranging from pharmaceuticals to glass to use in aluminum alloys. But the demand for lithium has exploded due to its use in lithium-ion batteries commonly used for grid storage, smartphones and, most importantly, electric vehicles.
The success of Tesla and the transition to electric vehicles underway in nearly every major automobile producer has spiked the demand for lithium in the United States and throughout the globe. This increase in demand has captured the attention of the mining industry in the United States, which has been weakened by its poor record of ecological destruction.
But new generation miners are arguing they can mine for minerals important for reducing fossil fuel reliance in the United States and they further contend that the coronavirus and other geopolitical concerns mean it is incumbent upon the United States to discover and extract rare earth materials.