Satellite image of the only lithium mine in the USA
Photo: NASA Earth Observatory / Lauren Dauphin
Gold prospectors once came to Silver Peak, a town in the US state of Nevada.
Meanwhile, other treasure hunters are at work.
A former volcano beneath the Clayton Valley has left large deposits of a silvery-white metal that is light and soft: lithium.
The substance is valuable because it is used in high-performance batteries.
These are essential for e-cars, mobile phones and laptops.
Global demand is increasing rapidly.
A few years ago, a ton of lithium was traded for less than 10,000 euros.
More than $70,000 is now being called for.
The only active lithium mine in the USA is in the Clayton Valley.
The Landsat 9 satellite photographed the mine from space in December.
The photo that Nasa has now published reveals how the dismantling works.
Machines pump the brine from the mine to the surface and direct it into shallow basins, from which the water gradually evaporates.
Ten kilos of lithium in a battery
The mostly dry and sunny weather in the valley allows the water to evaporate.
A lithium brine remains.
The process can take a year and a half or more.
The different colors show how high the lithium concentration is, blue-colored tanks contain a particularly large amount of the metal.
Once enough water has evaporated, the lithium-containing brine is pumped to nearby facilities, where it is further processed into powder, dried, and packaged.
Global demand for lithium has grown rapidly and is expected to continue to grow over the coming decade as more and more EVs are built.
By the end of the decade, 15 million battery-powered cars are expected to be on German roads alone.
A Tesla Model S contains as much lithium as about 10,000 cell phones.
The battery of the BMW iX electric off-road vehicle requires ten kilograms of lithium.
Covered only half of the need
According to calculations by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the demand for critical raw materials will quadruple worldwide by 2040, and the factor for the battery metal lithium is even 42. Accordingly, the quantities from active and planned mines will not be sufficient to cover the demand.
In the case of lithium, only half of future demand is secured.
The metal could therefore soon become scarce, experts believe.
Brussels and Berlin are also alarmed, the EU Commission is now talking about a "critical raw material".
Authorities warn that a lithium shortage could jeopardize the goals of expanding electromobility.
New pumps are always being built at Silver Peak's mine to meet demand.
The mine has been the only one in the US to mine lithium for decades.
Production is set to double by 2025.
Demand for domestic lithium is particularly strong in the U.S. because of tax incentives for EVs made with domestically produced parts.
Lithium from Germany?
The largest production sites are in Chile and Argentina, and they produce 75 percent of the lithium produced each year.
Most of the rest comes from Australia.
Lithium could also be extracted in Germany using new methods.
(Read more about this here.) So far in the EU, lithium is only mined in Portugal.