How Oregon landed a lithium bounty
Sammy Castonguay snapped a piece of rock from a small outcrop on the northeast edge of the McDermitt Caldera on the Oregon-Nevada border and pinned it to the ground with his boot. He raised his hammer and, with a light blow, broke the rock into small pieces.
Castonguay was collecting samples for his geology students at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, Oregon on a sunny Friday in January. He said teaching about this ancient supervolcano is much easier when he can give his students a piece of soft, white rock.
“Last time I came here, I think I only collected five samples,” Castonguay said, admiring a burnt-orange striped specimen. “And these went away very quickly.”
Others are also looking for their piece of McDermitt Caldera.
The caldera has some of the highest concentrations of lithium in the United States. Lithium is the lightest metal on earth and highly reactive, making it an ideal ingredient in batteries to power cell phones, laptops and electric vehicles.
Meanwhile, based in Australia Jindalee Resources is exploring a lithium deposit on the Oregon side of the caldera which he believes could be the the biggest in the country. No mines have been proposed in Oregon, but after reviewing the site from the Bureau of Land Management, Jindalee said the deposit could potentially host one.
The “lithium rushcomes to Beaver State as US and world powers seek more metal to power electric vehicles and store renewable energy from wind and solar. Unearthing Oregon’s lithium would mean sacrificing that piece of the sagebrush sea to provide the nation with a key ingredient to wean itself off fossil fuels.
Castonguay says it’s important to know the history of the McDermitt Caldera and how it formed before deciding to alter this landscape forever.
“This feature that we talk about and wave in our arms is 16 million years old,” Castonguay said, pointing to the vast caldera in front of him. “And we’re about to make decisions in five, 10 years about this thing. It’s a blink of an eye in geological time.
An eruption at Dwarf St. Helens
Castonguay scribbled notes of the field as the sun melted the thin layer of snow and turned the ground to soup. He said it was not the place to be 16.4 million years ago.
“We wouldn’t want to be here,” Castonguay said. “This is the site of a huge eruption.”
The same hotspot causing volcanic activity in Yellowstone National Park today was heat McDermitt at the time. Unlike other volcanoes, which are created by the collision or divergence of tectonic plates, hotspots are relatively stationary and are the result of hot materials near the center of the earth rising to the surface.
The hot spot heated a magma chamber, creating pressure that caused the volcano to erupt.
Chris Henry, a research geologist emeritus at the University of Nevada-Reno and the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology who helped make the first geological map of the McDermitt caldera, said the eruption was unlike anything what anyone alive today has ever seen.
“What’s happening in there is the magma is bubbling up, and it’s going up in a big column,” Henry said. “That column is collapsing and it’s flowing out as very hot, fairly dense streams that are gas-rich and rich in magma particles. They’re very hot. They’re cooking everything.
McDermitt’s eruption ejected about 1,000 times more magma than Mount St. Helens in 1980opening a path of destruction.
“Any wildlife, any vegetation in the immediate area would be really destroyed, unfortunately,” Henry said. “Mount St. Helens killed a lot of people, cut down a lot of forests; it was a much larger eruption, and it would have done it even more.
The hollowed-out magma chamber was no longer strong enough to hold the earth above, so the center of the volcano collapsed into the void, creating a lake bed surrounded by mountains and buttes.
Today, the McDermitt Caldera blends into the tan satellite view of the arid American west. But until at least 15.7 million years ago, Henry said, the caldera was filled with water like Crater Lake and Newberry Crater to the west.
Over time, the lake that filled McDermitt Caldera slowly eroded the rhyolite rim that held the water in place. This erosive process is what moved much of the lithium stored at the rim of the caldera to the lake bed clays, but Henry said an additional source of lithium is likely.
The unique geology of the McDermitt Caldera, coupled with a fortuitous delineation of state borders, has positioned Oregon and its poorest county, Malheur, to play a major role in the global transition to renewable energy.
“I think Oregonians need to know about this specific geology and this specific mineral that’s here in lithium because it plays such an immense role in the future of climate change,” Castonguay said.
Smaller eruptions continued in and around the McDermitt Caldera for a few hundred thousand years after the initial explosion 16.4 million years ago. Volcanic activity died down at McDermitt as the North American tectonic plate moved slowly over the hotspot (imagine a plate of cookies baking on a Bunsen burner), leaving a trail of volcanic centers from here to Yellowstone.
None of them appear to have the type of lithium deposits found at McDermitt. Scientists don’t know why.
“And it’s really curious because it looks like the same geology and the same geological processes happened in these other places, so why don’t they have lithium?” said Henry. “And that’s a real big question and a question that intrigues us.”
The Oregon Opportunity
The American appetite for lithium is more voracious than it has ever been.
Most people have a lithium-ion battery in your pocket and many of them replace it every few years. Manufacturers like General Motors have made promises to go at least partially if not fully electric In the coming years.
“These are things that directly affect people’s lives,” Henry said. “If we’re going to have electric vehicles and many other electric applications, we’re going to need the materials that go into those batteries, and right now lithium is the really big deal.”
While lithium consumption in the United States has increased, production has not increased.
The only lithium produced in the United States last year came from a brine extraction facility near Silver Peak, Nevada — an online project since the 1960s. The United States imports the majority of its lithium products from Argentina, Chile, China and Russia.
The Trump Administration labeled critical mineral lithium in 2018, speeding up the approval process for lithium mining and exploration. The Biden administration has since announced its intention to source, refine and recycle more lithium domestically.
Some are excited about the prospect of lithium mining in Oregon. Greg Smith, who directs Malheur Department Economic Development Agency, says a mine could provide well-paying jobs and spur growth in other sectors like housing and hospitality. Malheur County has the highest poverty rate in the state, according to a 2020 report from the Oregon Center for Public Policy.
Smith said he was also aware of the controversy created by a proposed lithium mine on the Nevada side of the McDermitt Caldera at Thacker Pass. This project prompted several lawsuits, including from neighboring Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone and Burns Paiute tribes.
“For us to be able to create this economic opportunity, we’re going to have to do it the Oregon way,” Smith said. “And we’ll have to make sure that’s done in a way that benefits all parties.”
Mineral exploration and geological survey have proven that the state has plenty of lithium. It’s unclear if Oregonians will support digging it all up.
You can still see remnants of the last time Oregon mined the McDermitt Caldera. Castonguay pointed to piles of cinnamon- and ginger-colored waste left over from uranium and mercury mining years ago.
“It’s a gift to have the conversation about this metal,” Castonguay said of lithium. “And for making quick and fleeting decisions, we are way beyond that. We have already paid that price.