About 16.4 million years ago, magma surged through a raised mound near Nevada’s present-day border with Oregon and began spreading an unholy orange glow outward over the region. At the time, landscape-spanning lava flows regularly gurgled and hissed across the area, releasing enough carbon dioxide to warm the Earth’s atmosphere. This particular eruption was special, though, at least according to a paper published late last month in Science Advances, which claims that underneath the volcano’s extinct crater is a thick brown clay that is shot through with what could be the largest known lithium deposit on the planet. If the discovery holds up, and the lithium is easy to extract and refine—both big ifs—this ancient geological event could end up shaping contemporary geopolitics, and maybe even the future of green energy.
Lithium is a blessing nearly as old as time itself. Immediately after the Big Bang, the universe was a dark and roiling plasma, too hot and chaotic for stable nuclei to form. It needed to expand and cool for a few minutes before it could begin generating atoms. Most of these primordial particles were hydrogen and helium, but for every 10 billion or so of hydrogen, a lone lithium atom would pop into existence. A thin mist of this lightest of all metals soon stretched across the entire cosmos. Much of it was later destroyed by various cosmic processes, but fortunately the universe has since made more and deposited it, as a kind of endowment, into the clouds of gas and dust that condense into stars and their orbiting planets.
On our planet, humanity has lived through a succession of metal ages: copper, bronze, iron. We are now living in a lithium age. The mineral goes into the batteries that power smartphones and electric vehicles, and much more of it will be needed for the futuristic batteries that will store renewable energy after humanity transitions away from fossil fuels. Now that we have learned how to derive electricity from light that beams down from the sun, and wind that rushes over Earth’s surface, and water that flows through rivers, we need somewhere to store it, and nothing stores electricity quite like lithium.
If current technological trends continue apace, lithium could one day be as important to a nation’s economy as steel was during the 20th century. China seems to have foreseen this coming surge in demand well before America’s energy companies or policy makers did. Chinese companies have discovered large lithium deposits in the arid Qinghai province, northeast of Tibet, while mineral processors are buying up lithium ore from mines in Australia, Chile, and Bolivia. The new deposit in Nevada could eventually shift that balance of power, but it won’t be out of the ground and inside batteries manufactured in America for a long time.
Venkat Srinivasan, the director of a special task force on energy storage at Argonne National Laboratory, told me that having more lithium deposits, especially large ones, on U.S. soil is very important. Lithium Americas, the company that funded the research that identified the deposit, says it expects to begin mining at the site in 2026. But it still isn’t clear how easy that will be. Because the lithium-rich clays are just underneath the extinct crater’s surface, there isn’t much rock to rip up in order to access them, at least relative to other kinds of deposits. But no one knows how expensive or carbon-intensive it will be to extract usable lithium from the clay—and someone has to pay to find out.
“Everyone loves a good story around size,” says Cameron Perks, a lithium analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence in Australia, but size isn’t everything. “Clay will have to compete with other sources of lithium for the hearts and minds of investors,” many of whom are already committed to funding the extraction of other types of deposits.
There are also political complexities. The region where the lithium deposit was found is sparsely populated today, but both the Paiute and the Shoshone claim it as unceded ancestral land. They lost it during the Snake War, one of the lesser-known and bloodiest conflicts of America’s westward expansion, which was partly triggered by white settlers’ dreams of mineral riches. The tribes, environmentalists, and local ranchers have all recently sued to prevent the creation of an open-pit lithium mine nearby. They’ve been unsuccessful, but litigation concerning this new deposit may unfold differently. Srinivasan stressed that the process will be unpredictable and time-consuming. If history is any indication, it could take a decade.
Even when the lithium is out of the ground, it will need to be processed to be usable, and the U.S. still lags well behind China in its processing capabilities. The Biden administration has awarded nearly $3 billion through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to boost the manufacturing of lithium batteries, but that isn’t nearly enough to stand up an industry on the scale of China’s. “China will always play an important role in the future supply of lithium for the U.S., whether we like it or not,” Perks told me. America is likely going to be playing catch-up on lithium for a long time to come, no matter how much of it sits hidden in the ancient lava flows just underneath this country’s surface.