By Drew Andre
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LAS VEGAS (KVVU) – Nevada is nicknamed the Silver State because of the silver mining industry that made up much of the state’s early history. What’s less well known is that Nevada can also mine minerals like lithium, and it could one day become something the state is known for, like hospitality and tourism.
Our lifeline is becoming more and more dependent on lithium batteries every year. Think of all your electronics, more solar panels popping up, and the number of electric cars cruising down the street. However, it all starts with lithium mines.
“We’re mining more metals than in human history, and mining is just as important to modern life – perhaps in some ways more important to modern life than agriculture,” said Simon Jowitt, associate professor of economic geology at UNLV.
Mining of this mineral occurs mostly in South America and Australia. There’s only one place in all of North America where lithium is mined, and that’s here in the Silver State.
The Silver Peak mine in Esmeralda County is approximately 200 miles north of Las Vegas.
There is underground water called brine, which is highly concentrated lithium. If that is brought to the surface and vaporized, the lithium can be put into batteries.
“This is our manufacturing facility where we make our battery packs here in Nevada,” said Lithion Nhan Thai’s production manager.
Lithion is one of only a few lithium companies in southern Nevada.
FOX5 toured its facility, where an assembly line of workers makes 200 large battery packs a day.
However, like every other battery manufacturer in the country, they start with battery cells that are made in China. Almost all of the lithium mined worldwide is produced there and processed into the cells.
About a mile down the road from Lithion’s battery manufacturing facility in an industrial area of Henderson near a grocery store and sandwich shop, a nondescript warehouse will soon be the world’s first cylindrical cell manufacturing facility outside of China.
“Everyone has seen the consequences of a supply chain based in China or Asia. The issues over the past several years have been either related to the pandemic or issues related to pure logistics,” said Jim Hodge, Lithion’s VP Power Sources.
It’s no accident why Lithion, a company that’s been around for about 20 years, chose Southern Nevada after expanding into rechargeable battery manufacturing. The dry climate and industry experts made it the perfect choice, according to Hodge.
“I have a strong customer interest in having battery cells manufactured in America, so we are very excited about this operation,” said Hodge.
The Henderson plant, of course, cannot compete with the large-scale operations in China, and they are not trying to at the moment. Their cells will be used in the US for military, medical and aviation purposes
“As we navigate this energy transition, southern Nevada and Nevada as a whole is poised to benefit because we have every step of that process here in the state or in our region,” said Andrew Woods, director of economic research at UNLV.
Woods said there are currently 9,000 jobs in Nevada’s lithium industry between manufacturing, engineering and mining. He expects it to triple by 2030.
“There’s no doubt that Tesla’s move to Nevada changed the ball game,” Woods said. “What you saw here is not just Tesla and Panasonic, but about 14 other companies and startups.”
Woods said it’s not just Nevada making renewable energy a priority, but the federal government is also pouring big bucks into the issue. A focus on renewable energy is contained in the Infrastructure Act, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Anti-Inflation Act.
Jowitt and his colleagues in the field of economic geology are trying to expand the mineral industry in the state and beyond.
“If you just export lithium to China, you lose all of that,” Jowitt said. “You lose all this technological development. You’re losing all those jobs. You’re losing all that value to someone else, and you’re essentially losing the security supply of lithium, which is one of the critical things that the federal government has given a lot of thought to.”
Jowitt said there are some other mines that could soon be developed in northern Nevada, but potential environmental impacts also need to be considered. Jowitt said recycling lithium needs to become more common in the future.
However, the jobs in this industry already exist. Lithium, for example, is actively hiring.
“It’s so new that it’s difficult to hire someone with experience in the battery industry, so we’re willing to train any applicant willing to learn,” Thai said. “Some of the people I’m generally happy to see are people who have always wanted to work in STEM or science and technology, but for some reason have made choices in their life that didn’t go down that path.”
Work is underway to develop Nevada’s new gold.
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