WINNEMUCCA — For now, there’s not much going on at the Western Lithium mine site located 60 miles north of Winnemucca, but the future of electric batteries dependent on lithium is promising, and the current use of hectorite organoclays in directional drilling is even more promising.
Western Lithium President Jay Chmelauskas explained the electric car industry is in transition from earlier technology of nickel-metal hybrid batteries to ones dependent on lithium. He explained the change occurred first in small-scale electronics, such as computers and cordless tools.
“There has been nice growth in lithium demand market over the last several years,” Chmelauskas said. “With an 8 percent annual growth in lithium demand based on small-scale electronics alone.”
The benefits have since made their way into electric cars.
Lithium batteries are seen as positive for the auto industry due to the fact they have higher energy density and therefore better performance, Chmelauskas explained. Lithium batteries have three times the energy density, the battery is one-third the size, and can go three times further.
Companies such as Tesla offer all electric vehicles utilizing lithium batteries, with 100 pounds of lithium in the battery.
“We have been placing our demand expectation on this new demand from the electrification of automobiles,” Chmelauskas said.
Consumers are satisfied with their electric cars — himself included — and as demand has increased prices have begun dropping, which may increase demand even more in the long run — a positive development.
The diversification of the energy market will not only be positive for the consumer, Chmelauskas pointed out, but may be advantageous for the state as well.
Areas where there has been energy diversification development have also seen the growth of supporting technology and increases in jobs for related fields. Tesla, for example, took a leadership role in the electric car industry and as a result there was job growth for scientists and software engineers, etc.
There is an opportunity to create a larger economy, Chmelauskas said, a macro opportunity starting with the raw materials located in the state.
However, the lithium market is still developing and it will be several years before the first ounce of lithium is mined in Humboldt County. Western Lithium has not yet even begun the permitting process as the company watches the world lithium market develop to the point mining it becomes profitable.
In the meantime, the company has decided to take advantage of the byproduct: hectorite clay. Western Lithium is in the permitting process to mine clay, which is used in drilling for oil and natural gas.
Dennis Bryan, senior vice president of development, said the company has purchased a property in Fernley and is constructing a facility for the development of the clay, which should be operational next spring or summer.
The company will be permitted to mine 15,000 - 20,000 tons of clay per year; once the lithium mining starts the clay byproduct may be closer to 100,000 tons per year.
Although the mining of industrial clay is usually not controversial, its use in what has become known as fracking is.
Fracking is the short name for hydraulic fracturing, the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure to fracture shale rocks to release the natural gas or oil inside.
Chmelauskas acknowledged the negative consequences of fracking need to be managed and mitigated, but he added the development of alternative energies would have other positive benefits, such as the improvement of air quality.
“We used to burn firewood, coal, and natural gas,” he said. “The transition has always produced something better.”
Western Lithium anticipates mining 30,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year and may employ 120-130 people at the Humboldt County mine site. Although small in comparison to the area’s gold mines, it does represent a diversification of an economy largely reliant on gold mining.
Mining lithium is very similar to other types of mining, except it occurs in clay as opposed to hard rock. Chmelauskas said the skills acquired in hard-rock mining of metals will be applicable to lithium mining, and those skills will be very desirable in potential employees once the mine is operational.
The lithium-rich clay deposit is located 60 miles north of Winnemucca and is generally considered the fifth largest lithium deposit in the world. The majority of the world’s lithium is currently mined in South America.