Nevada Newsmakers

Nevada's 'Lithium Loop' prepares for major expansion with billions in federal loans & education programs, Nevada Mining president says

News - July 15, 2024

Lithium, the "white gold" needed to power America's clean-energy future, is becoming the most sought-after mineral in Nevada -- in a state that's already the nation's largest producer of gold -- said Amanda Hilton, the president of the Nevada Mining Association.

"LIthium is certainly the talk of the state right now," Hilton told host Sam Shad on Nevada Newsmakers recently.

The Biden Administration needs the mineral for ion-lithium battery production as part of its plan to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, according to various reports. And it is willing to help finance lithium mining in Nevada.

Of course, Nevada already touts its "Lithium Loop," as the state is home to almost every phase of the lithium supply chain -- from mining the ore in Esmeralda County, to producing electric-car batteries at the Tesla Gigafactory near Reno and recycling the batteries near Fernley.

"There's a great opportunity within the state of Nevada as we continue to expand our mining footprint with lithium," Hilton said. "There is a tremendous amount of support for lithium."

Earlier this month U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was in Reno along with U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nv., to announce that $21 million in federal funds will be awarded to the University of Nevada, Reno's Lithium Loop Tech Hub.

That tech hub was created by the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act as a way to invest in American regions with the best potential to help supply future energy needs.

Currently, Nevada is home to America's only operating lithium mine, in the Clayton Valley of rural Esmeralda County. However, the mining of lithium in Nevada is poised to expand rapidly, Hilton said.

"The Nevada Mining Association team got to go visit the Silver Peak Mine recently (in Clayton Valley) and see that in person," she said. "And there is another mine, Thacker Pass, which is in the construction phase and should be producing lithium in about 2027. And then the Ioneer (lithium mining) project at Rhyolite Ridge is in the final permitting stages."

The Biden Administration is also investing heavily into the Thacker Pass and Rhyolite Ridge projects, Hilton said.

The federal government recently approved a conditional loan of more than $2 billion to the Thacker Pass mine operators -- Lithium Americas of Canada.

Ioneer of Australia, full owner of the Rhyolite Ridge mine, received $700 million in conditional federal loans.

The Thacker Rass location has the largest known U.S. deposit of lithium, according to the Associated Press. The $2 billion federal loan will finance a lithium carbonate processing plant at the site, which is near the Nevada-Oregon border north of Winnemucca, about 200 miles from Reno.

"I would say the federal government is really putting their money where their mouth is because they already have a conditional loan in place with Thacker Pass and already have a conditional loan in place with Rhyolite Ridge," Hilton said. "So the federal government is already supporting those two lithium mines to help them get online as quickly as possible."

The $21 million awarded to the Lithium Loop Tech Hub will help develop and train the workforce needed to operate mines, with an emphasis on training and educating workers at Native American communities near the mines.

"It is going to focus on workforce development and Native American engagement within the "Lithium Loop' and the lithium lifecycle," Hilton said.

"So what we have seen with private enterprise so far ... is that they have definitely reached out into the Native American community to be able to bring people in as workers and to be able to improve roads, (work on) plans to build schools and other things," Hilton said.

"So this is going even beyond that, to ensure that all of those communities have the resources they need so that they can engage and they can get the skills they need to work in this industry."

The education opportunities needed for employment in the lithium industry will not be limited to the University of Nevada, Reno, Hilton said.

I think there is a tremendous amount of opportunity within our local community colleges to do the skills training at those colleges," Hilton said.

"For Nevadans who are already here, for example, Great Basin College (in Elko) has excellent programs when it comes to welding, diesel mechanics and millwrights. If those could be expanded so that more people could participate in those programs, graduate from high school, or with a two year or four year degree as a skilled trades person, that would be outstanding," Hilton said. "We need to increase our capacity at these levels."

The mining industry has gotten high-tech and is a far cry of the traditional image of a miner using a pick-axe and shovel, Hilton said.

"That is so far from what modern mining looks like today," she said. "The site I just left has three autonomous drills operating. The operator of those drills sits in a control room, miles from where those drills are. And it looks like they're playing a video game."

Lithium is a mineral that has been deemed vital for national security by the U.S. Geological Survey. Yet the federal government is also concerned about the vulnerability of its supply chains because about 90 percent of its processing is done in Australia, Chile and China.

Nevada's "Lithium Loop" includes almost every step in lithium production and use. However Nevada has no lithium processing facilitates, which can be harmful to the environment.

Yet technology may soon help Nevada in the processing of lithium, which would close and complete the "Lithium Loop" and ease the need for foreign imports of processed lithium.

"Well, there are many different technologies that are being developed, studied and tested in Nevada today," Hilton said when asked about lithium processing. "And we have to continue to invest in those technological advancements."

Research on lithium-processing technology is being done in private/public partnerships, she said.

"The private industries are working very hard on this, and there are great opportunities for schools like UNR and UNLV, to continue their work in this area as well."

Hilton is a product of the Nevada education system, attending Reno High before moving to Ely and graduating from White Pine High.

"Moving to a school of 400 from Reno High School was quite a shift for me, but really in a magnificent way, because the whole community and the whole culture was so different and very, very supportive," Hilton said about Ely, a former stage-coach station on the Pony Express trail in Eastern Nevada that saw a mining boon when copper was discovered nearby in 1906.

"I was able to jump right in," she added about living in Ely. "My whole family was able to jump right into the community and become very actively involved. I moved away from Ely after I graduated, went to college, and then pursued some other career opportunities.

Hilton received her undergrad degree at the University of Utah and MBA at the University of Wisconsin.

"But Ely kept calling my name and about 10 years after I graduated from high school, I moved back to Ely because that was home and that's where I wanted to be."

Hilton worked for about 20 years in various jobs at the Robinson Mine near Ely before taking over as NMA president in January. She was the general manager of the Robinson Mine before leading the NMA.

Now, Hilton calls herself an "unconventional miner" because her background is in finance and not mining. Yet her steel-toed boots are among her favorite shoes, she said.

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