Among the sagebrush and sand within the Nevadan deserts, specifically that of Humboldt County, are rare and lucrative pockets of lithium waiting to be mined, refined, and turned into battery-quality lithium carbonate, which powers countless every-day items. Lithium Americas held the grand opening of its new 30,000 square foot Technical Center in Reno, Nev., on July 20, which will accommodate research and development projects necessary to keep the evolution of the most advanced lithium mining project in the United States—located in McDermitt, NV— striving for bigger, better, and greener goals. The Thacker Pass site, which is approximately 60 miles from Winnemucca NV, has received approval from the Bureau of Land Management that permits the beginning of construction, according to Lithium Americas.
President and CEO of Lithium Americas, Jonathan Evans, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak, and University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) President, Brian Sandoval, were all present to cut the ribbon at the grand opening, along with members of the Ft. McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe.
“While we hope to play a meaningful role in developing a secure domestic supply of lithium to meet our country’s electrification needs, we are committed to doing this in a manner that benefits the people of Nevada, its tribal nations and the broader industry that has flourished in this state,” said Evans.
The event showcased a tour of the pristine machines used to remove impurities and foster clean waste-products that can be easily reintroduced to the environment. A majority of the process, according to President of North American Operations for Lithium Americas, Alexi Zawaski, is to both remove impurities, like magnesium, that can cause lithium batteries to catch on fire, and to ensure that waste products created by the mining process are environmentally responsible.
“It’s really important that people understand what we are doing with our waste products,” said Zawaski.
The waste produced from the mining process—like epsom salt, from magnesium, and neutral clay— can be touched with bare hands, and were, by many of the guests at the opening. Even while machines were operating with materials inside of them, technicians and patrons need only wear plastic safety glasses. The non-lithium bearing clay, made of a sandy-silt material, is packed tightly into flat, square bricks, removing much of the water that is initially used to scrub unsought minerals from the lithium-bearing materials by the end of the process. The bricks are easily stored and then can be settled into mounds and used for back-fill upon reclamation. Lithium Americas is still exploring purposes in regards to how to recycle the epsom salt, according to officials.
“As Nevada continues to strengthen its position as a leader in the U.S. battery supply chain, the Center’s sophisticated battery chemical lab will provide Lithium Americas with expanded technical capacity to improve processes and utilize resources more efficiently while serving as a hub for companies across the lithium-ion battery industry to share knowledge and drive innovation,” officials explained.
The Thacker Pass site will also house its own Sulfuric Acid Plant, according to Zawaski, for leaching and neutralizing, a very important step in making sure the lithium that is yielded is pure. The plant will convert sulfur, which is much safer to haul and store than sulfuric acid, into sulfuric acid on site, removing many risks and dangers during transportation and handling.
“Building a sulfuric acid plant on site reduces the number of trucks on the road as each ton of sulfur can create three tons of sulfuric acid, and sulfur is much safer to transport. The production of sulfuric acid also produces steam which we will use to generate carbon-free power for the processing plant,” according to Lithium Americans.
The materials go through other scrubbing, filtration and purification processes, forging sustainable energy from steam and water that is recycled more than seven times throughout the process. At the end, the white-powdery lithium substance is tested in parts per million for impurity detection, by expert procedures in the state-of-the-art lab. Zawaski explained that the filtration processes in order to reuse water and create environmentally neutral waste products is pricey, but is important to Lithium Americas work to minimize their environmental footprint, which is beyond the requirements of regulatory standards.
“We’re still improving,” said Zawaski, and added that the Tech center will help the company to achieve goals of conservative design and neutral waste.
“Through the technological expertise of Lithium Americas and the research capacity of University of Nevada, Reno, the Lithium Technical Development Center being commissioned today is a shining example of the productive public-private partnerships that we are fostering across the state to power economic growth and responsible use of resources. This is a fantastic achievement for all involved that puts Nevada firmly at the center of the U.S.’s clean energy leadership,” said Governor Sisolak.
Amongst the numerous technicians and experts manning every stage of the process tour, clad in green, were many UNR graduates and students, proud to put their degrees to work, according to many of them.
“The determination that Lithium Americas has shown to not only build a strong U.S. battery industry but train the next pioneers in this space will pay dividends to Nevada, ensuring that we can continue to set and achieve ambitious goals,” said Sandoval.