According to Lithium Nevada sources, the company has produced over 3,000 kg (105,821 oz.) of high-quality lithium sulfate solution at the process testing facility in Reno. Lithium Nevada expects to conduct a feasibility study with a Phase 1 production capacity of 20,000 tonnes per annum of battery-quality LCE, which is expected to be complete by mid-2020.
According to Lithium Nevada sources, the company has produced over 3,000 kg (105,821 oz.) of high-quality lithium sulfate solution at the process testing facility in Reno. Lithium Nevada expects to conduct a feasibility study with a Phase 1 production capacity of 20,000 tonnes per annum of battery-quality LCE, which is expected to be complete by mid-2020.
Lithium Nevada’s Thacker Pass project recently announced the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has deemed its Plan of Operation complete.  Lithium Nevada filed the plan with the BLM in August 2019. The mining company expects to acquire all major permits for Phase 1 operations by the end of 2020.

The Thacker Pass project is located about 60 miles northwest of Winnemucca in Humboldt County. According to the technical report, the project is a “one of a kind” deposit which “requires an alternative approach that would reduce overall operational and capital costs and leverage the physical properties of the soft claystone.”

On a recent tour in Lithium Nevada’s process testing facility in Reno, Vice President of Engineering Brett Rabe laid out the unique aspects of the project. 

“The uniqueness of the process is really a function of the ore body. In developing our extraction method, we aren’t doing anything that hasn’t been done for, in many cases, one hundred years.”

The lithium deposit sits in the McDermitt Caldera, which could possibly be the oldest caldera in a sequence of calderas which were formed by the Yellowstone Hotspot about 16 million years ago. “What traditionally happens,” Rabe explained, “is that when you have a super eruption the edges [of the caldera] would collapse and all of the minerals that were at one time in the magma basically wash out to the ocean.”  However, the McDermitt Caldera is unique because it didn’t collapse and, instead, lake formed which contained the magma and depositing lithium in layers embedded with in soft clay sediment. 

Over millions of years, additional sediment would be deposited over the lithium. Instead, “Normally, this [ore] is hundreds and hundreds of feet below the surface and it would not be economically mined. But what happened is about 300,000 years after the first eruption, the magma chamber does an uplift and it pushed the center of that caldera, so all of the overburden was washed away through erosion and exposed that lithium to the surface.” Rabe said the mining operation will not be removing large amounts of overburden.  He said that by the 40th year of operation, the pit as deep will only be about 120m (393 ft.). “By Nevada standards that is a very, very small pit.”

The way the lithium deposit is laid down it constitute create an ore body of soil-like material, which means that the extraction process is also unique to this mine. “Due to the nature of the deposit,” Rabe said, “it's basically a soil. There's no drilling. There's no blasting. We're basically going in with earth moving equipment and digging it up.”

The Reno testing facility was constructed to determine if the extraction process was feasible. According to Lithium Nevada President of North American Operations Alexi Zawadzki, “You have to consider how the ore was formed because the extraction process is the reverse process of the how the ore was formed.”

 The ore was formed under water and by adding water, it the reverses process and the ore falls apart and it turns to a slur. This slur gets transported by a gravity feed pipeline to an attrition scrubber to break it apart further so the lithium can be upgraded.

“There's certain parts of the ore that don't have a lot of lithium in it,” Zawadzki said. “So, what we're doing is upgrading the ore in a process called ‘beneficiation’. We're upgrading that ore into a slurry and that's what makes the process unique. You can upgrade [the ore] even though we started with a high concentrate of lithium …. We actually increase that concentration simply by adding water to it and do the evaporation” process. 

Lithium Nevada will not have to build ponds and wait two or three years for enough water to evaporate out to have a high enough lithium concentration. We can crystalize it. We get to use steam from our sulfuric acid plant, and it evaporates the water off it immediately,” Rabe said during the tour. “We're not waiting on Mother Nature or crossing our fingers hoping to get good sun.”

According to Rabe, the most expensive part of the process is producing sulfuric acid because the process requires massive amounts of sulfuric acid. Lithium Nevada intends to build their own sulfuric acid plant, promising it won’t be anything like any other sulfuric acid plant. “f you were to drive up to our plant site after it's been constructed,” Rabe said “this is probably going to be the largest building that stands out there. It's still going to look like a very large chemical plant. It will not look like any mine or mill facility you see in Nevada. It's going to look like a good-sized chemical plant.”

Rabe added that while the plant is designed to optimize the use of sulfuric acid, in terms of emission and noise, this is going to be the cleanest sulfuric acid plant constructed. “We're going to have the largest closed loop cooling system for a sulfuric acid plant ever developed. Because of that, we probably save about 1,500-acre feet a year of water.” The sulfuric acid plant will produce enough steam to produce electricity that the company will be able to sell up to 15 mega-watts to NV Energy. 

Zawadzki said this process has been proven in the phosphate industry and Lithium Nevada is applying this method to the extraction process. The slurry goes through a neutralization process and at that point, Zawadzki says what is left is a high purity lithium sulfate. 

The Reno testing facility has taken samples from the Thacker Pass location and produced over 3,000 kg of high-quality lithium sulfate solution. From this lithium sulfate solution, the company can make two main battery chemicals that are used right in the lithium-ion battery industry. The first is called lithium hydroxide, which is what Panasonic uses in their batteries and the other one is lithium carbonate. According to Zawadzki, some lithium mining operations can produce only one of these lithium products, but from “our process from lithium sulfate, we can make either lithium hydroxide or lithium carbonate. This is what gives us the flexibility and makes it unique to respond to market needs.”

The lithium market has been a relatively non-descript industry until recently. But with the development of electric vehicles, the demand for lithium batteries has soared. The demand for lithium is expected to grow more than 500% by 2025. The mine has the potential to produce approximately 25% of global demand with a 40 plus year lifespan.

“This is an industry that's growing rapidly,” Zawadzki says. “Electric vehicles are something that everyone is going to have. There are laws changing across the world right now that you have no choice. Certainly, in Europe, they're banning internal combustion engines in major cities by 2030 … so you're not going to have a choice. You're going to have to have an electric vehicle.”

Zawadzki says the company plans to disrupt the lithium industry by making the supply more efficient and stable. “The battery supply chain at the moment is relatively inefficient. Materials are shipped all over the world two times over.” The company’s goal is to combine a mining and a battery making facility within the same operation and to do it within Nevada. “We are producing an end-product and so people think of Lithium Nevada as a mining company. Mining is just a little bit of what we do. Where the value is really created is in this project is in the chemical plant. We are producing high quality, high purity battery chemicals that are in demand.”

The operations will create approximately 1,000 jobs during the construction of $1.3 billion project and will employ more than 275 people.  

Lithium Nevada anticipates permits to be issued by the end of 2020 and for Phase I construction to begin shortly thereafter.  Phase I production is expected to begin sometime in late 2022.