CARSON CITY — A new mining boom is taking shape in Nevada, one focused not on gold and silver but brines and clay containing an element critical to a 21st century world.
Interest in Nevada’s lithium supplies spiked after Tesla Motors Inc. chose the Northern Nevada desert as the site for its $5 billion lithium-ion battery factory, a joint venture with Japanese company Panasonic Corp.
Elon Musk, Tesla’s billionaire CEO, said mass production of the batteries is key to his goal of making the company’s fast and sexy electric cars affordable to the general public.
Since factory construction began last year, Musk has launched another endeavor — making energy storage units for homes and businesses capable of storing solar-produced electricity for use when the sun doesn’t shine.
With Nevada having the only lithium-producing mine in the nation, interest in the Silver State’s lithium riches are soaring. But whether the metal will prove to be a boon or bust remains to be seen.
What it is, why we need it
Lithium is the lightest and softest of all metals. At room temperature, it’s a silvery-white color and can be cut with a knife. But in a pure state it is highly reactive to water and air — it is flammable and can even explode.
Cellphones, portable electronics and laptop computers all use rechargeable lithium batteries. It’s also used in heat-resistant glass, ceramics, aircraft metals, lubrication grease, air treatment systems and pharmaceuticals.
But it is the buzz over Tesla and the emerging electric car market that is charging the demand for lithium. In 2013, rechargeable batteries accounted for 29 percent of lithium consumption, according to Stormcrow Capital, a Toronto-based research and consulting firm. By 2025, Stormcrow projects that percentage will jump to roughly half.
Global supply of lithium carbonate equivalent was estimated at 235,000 metric tons in 2014, with a demand of 181,000 tons.
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