A lithium mine has been discovered within the McDermitt Caldera, located along the Nevada-Oregon border. This finding is significant in that it may hold between 20 million and 40 million metric tons of this rare metal, which is nearly double the current record of approximately 23 million metric tons of lithium found this summer beneath a Bolivian salt flat. To put the magnitude of this finding further into perspective, the McDermitt Caldera is approximately 28 miles long and 22 miles wide.
Lithium is a chemical element that is a vital component of green technology, including grid storage batteries and electric cars. But how did such a large deposit come to be located in the McDermitt Caldera? Approximately 16.4 million years ago, a volcanic eruption filled the caldera with alkaline magma containing sodium, potassium, and lithium. It also formed a lake that deposited lithium into claybed soils.
Although an estimated 88 million tons of lithium exists in the world, only a quarter of it is currently economically feasible to mine. The McDermitt Caldera discovery is especially important, as it comes during a time when United States lithium reserves have been estimated at only approximately 1 million metric tons. This lithium shortage is exacerbated by the Biden administration’s recent call for electric vehicles to make up approximately 50% of all cars sold by 2030. Electric vehicle makers have been searching for larger lithium deposits in order to meet current and future demand.
Geologists anticipate that lithium mining at the McDermitt Caldera may begin as soon as 2026. However, this activity is likely to see opposition from a variety of groups, including conservationists, Indigenous Americans, and even NASA, which has previously argued these undisturbed mines are key to calibrating the measurements of hundreds of satellites orbiting the Earth. There are also concerns from local farmers about how future lithium mining will affect the area’s groundwater levels.
Although there is still much uncertainty as to when, how and even if lithium mining in and around the McDermitt Caldera will occur, what is certain is that this newly discovered deposit will have global impacts to this industry for years to come.