Scientists have discovered a huge deposit of lithium inside an ancient US volcano that could be a game changer for American clean energy, but could spell disaster for Native Americans

By | September 14, 2023

A general view shows the brine ponds of the Albemarle Chile lithium plant, located in the Atacama Salt Flat

A general view shows the brine ponds of the Albemarle Chile lithium plant, located in the Atacama Salt Flat.REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado/File Photo

  • Scientists have measured significant levels of lithium trapped in clay deposits in an extinct US volcano.

  • The United States relies mainly on lithium imports, which it uses for rechargeable batteries in electric cars.

  • Lithium independence would be a game changer for clean energy, but Native Americans are already suffering.

The name McDermitt Caldera is probably unfamiliar. It belongs to an extinct volcano that last erupted about 16 million years ago. But for lithium hunters it is the biggest gold mine discovery of the century.

In 2020, scientists published a shocking discovery that the caldera contains what may be the largest amount of lithium in the world, locked away in an unusual type of clay called illite.

Recent research has gone further. In August, researchers reported that illite in the southern part of the McDermitt Caldera, called Thacker Pass, contains about 1.8% lithium on average.

That’s nearly double the lithium found in magnesium smectite, the main type of clay mined for lithium, Chemistry World reported today.

That means a couple of things: The McDermitt Caldera, located along the Nevada-Oregon border, could hold more than 132 million tons of lithium, enough to meet global demand for decades, Jalopnik reported.

This also means that the United States, which has only one active lithium mine, may no longer have to rely on other countries for much of its lithium.

The United States has about 8 million tons of lithium embedded in its soil, ranking among the top five countries in the world with the most reserves, but the country makes up just 1% of global lithium production, according to Minerals Make Life.

And demand for lithium is expected to increase as it is a key ingredient for rechargeable batteries used in electric vehicles.

The country needs more lithium to keep pace with electric vehicle supply chains. And McDermitt Caldera could be that asset.

“It could change the dynamics of lithium globally, in terms of price, security of supply and geopolitics,” Anouk Borst, a geologist at KU Leuven University and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, told Chemistry World in Belgium.

There’s just one thing: Local indigenous communities say Thacker Pass is sacred land where they gather traditional medicines, foods and supplies for sacred ceremonies, The Guardian reported.

“There are burial sites there. There are medicines and roots there, there are ecosystems – there is still life back there,” Gary McKinney of the local Shoshone-Paiute indigenous tribe of Thacker Pass told Al Jazeera. “And everything is sacrificed supposedly to solve the climate crisis.”

McKinney is part of the indigenous group called the Red Mountain People who opposed lithium mining at Thacker Pass.

But a federal court denied the opponent’s injunction requests, and in March the company Lithium Americas said workers had begun drilling and building infrastructure at the site, Al Jazeera reported.

“The world needs to know that this lithium mining, and this acceleration of lithium mining, is a continuation of racism against Paiute and Shoshone people,” McKinney told NPR.

According to, lithium extraction methods can lead to water pollution, land degradation and potential groundwater contamination. According to the MSCI Sustainability Institute, approximately 79% of lithium reserves in the United States are within 35 miles of Native American reservations.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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