Nevada’s untapped gold: Why Nevada will play a major role in America’s energy future

Published: Nov. 18, 2022 at 8:31 AM PST
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LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) - Nevada is called the Silver State because of the silver mining industry which was a big part of the state’s early history. What’s lesser known is that Nevada can mine for minerals like lithium too, and it could one day become something the state is known for like hospitality and tourism.

Our lifeline is growing more reliant on lithium batteries every year. Think of all your electronic devices, more solar panels popping up and the number of electric cars cruising down the street. However, all that begins with lithium mines.

“We mine more of any metal than we have in human history and mining is just as vital for modern life - maybe more vital in modern life in some ways than farming,” UNLV associate professor of economic geology Simon Jowitt said.

Mining for this mineral is largely done in South America and Australia. There’s just one place in all of North America where lithium is mined for, and it’s here in the Silver State.

The Silver Peak mine in Esmeralda County is about 200 miles north of Las Vegas.

There’s water underground called brines, which is highly concentrated lithium. When that’s brought to surface and evaporated the lithium can be put in batteries.

“This is our manufacturing facility where we’re making our battery packs here in Nevada,” production manager for the company Lithion Nhan Thai said.

Lithion is one of just a couple lithium companies in southern Nevada.

FOX5 toured their 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. Just about all the lithium mined around the world is produced there and turned 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, an unassuming warehouse will soon be the first cylindrical cell manufacturing facility in the world outside of China.

“Everyone saw the consequences of having a supply chain that’s based in China or Asia. The issues the last couple years were either through the pandemic or issues related to pure logistics,” Lithion VP power sources Jim Hodge said.

It’s no coincidence why Lithion, a company that’s existed for about 20 years, picked southern Nevada after it expanded into making rechargeable batteries. The dry climate and industry experts made it the perfect fit, according to Hodge.

“I have a lot of customer interest in having battery cells made in America, so we’re really excited about this operation,” Hodge said.

The Henderson facility of course can’t compete with the large-scale operations in China, and right now they’re not attempting to do that. Their cells will serve military, medical and aviation needs in the U.S.

“As we shift in this energy transition, southern Nevada and Nevada as a whole are primed to take advantage of this because we have every step of that process here in the state or in our region,” Director for Economic Research at UNLV Andrew Woods said.

Woods said right now there’s 9,000 jobs in the lithium industry in Nevada between manufacturing, engineering and mining. He anticipates that will triple by 2030.

“There is no doubt Tesla moving to Nevada changed the ballgame,” Woods said. “What you’ve seen is not just Tesla here and Panasonic, but about 14 other companies and startups.”

Woods said it’s not just Nevada that’s making renewable energy a priority, but the federal government is throwing a lot of money at the issue too. A focus on renewable energy is included in the Infrastructure Law, CHIPS and Science Act and Inflation Reduction Act.

Jowitt and his colleagues in the field of economic geology are trying to expand the minerals industry in the state and beyond.

“If you just export lithium to China, you lose all of that,” Jowitt said. “You lose all that technological development. You lose all those jobs. You lose all of that value to someone else, and you lose essentially the security supply of lithium which is one of those critical things the federal government’s been thinking about a lot.”

Jowitt said there are a couple other mines that could be tapped into soon in northern Nevada, but potential environmental impacts have to be taken into account too. Jowitt said recycling lithium will have to become more common in the future.

However, the jobs in this industry already exist. Lithion, for example, is actively hiring.

“It’s so very new it’s difficult to hire anyone with experience in the battery industry, so we’re willing to train any applicant that’s willing to learn,” Thai said. “Some of the folks I generally like to see are people that have always wanted to work in STEM or science and technology, but for some reason in their life they made choices where they didn’t go that route.”

The work is underway to untap what could be Nevada’s new gold.