World’s Richest Lithium Deposit Faces Opposition To Mining
This article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States.
Five years ago, professional gem hunters Mary and Gary Freeman stumbled upon the richest known lithium deposit in the world in the woods of western Maine. Lithium is a silvery metal many consider to be key to the transition to a clean energy future, thanks to its role in technology like lithium-ion batteries.
The Maine deposit could be a way for the United States to be independent in their lithium sourcing. But there’s stiff opposition to digging up the mineral within Maine.
Kate Cough, reporter and enterprise editor for The Maine Monitor, reported this story in collaboration with Time Magazine. Cough is a Report For America corps member. She joins Ira to discuss the debate.
Correction: In this segment, reporter Kate Cough says that lithium “is the lightest element,” which is incorrect. She meant to indicate that lithium is the lightest metal.
Kate Cough is a reporter and enterprise editor at the Maine Monitor in Bar Harbor, Maine
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, and now it’s time to check in on the state of science.
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IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance. Five years ago, gem hunters found the richest known lithium deposit in the world, and they found it deep in the woods of western Maine. Yes. Lithium is a silvery metal that is a key element in lithium ion batteries. And the world is searching all over for it. Even so, there is stiff opposition to digging up this deposit.
Joining me to explain is Kate Cough, reporter and enterprise editor at The Maine Monitor based in Bar Harbor, Maine. Welcome to Science Friday.
KATE COUGH: Thank you so much for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Now, this is not the world’s largest deposit, but it’s the richest deposit. What does that mean?
KATE COUGH: That’s correct. So there is a pretty big difference. And we should probably start by explaining what lithium is just briefly for those who don’t know. I’m sure you’ve heard about it at this point. But lithium is a metal, of course. It’s the lightest element, which means that it can’t be broken down any further into constituent parts. It’s actually so light that it floats in water. And it’s never found by itself in nature.
So when we say that there’s a very rich lithium deposit, it doesn’t mean that someone has found a big cache of pure lithium metal underground. It means that they’ve found rocks that have lithium in them, which is bonded to something else. In this case, the lithium is bonded to oxygen, and it’s known as lithium oxide.
The deposit is thought to be the world’s richest because the samples that have been analyzed so far have shown an average lithium oxide content of 4.68% by weight, which I know doesn’t sound like very much, but the second richest hard rock lithium deposit in Manitoba, Canada has a lithium oxide content of 2.76% by weight. So that’s quite a bit less.
This find is also really unique for the size of the crystals that contain the lithium. So some of these crystals are 36 feet long, whereas typically crystals like this are really small, like the size of a thumbnail. So like we said, this isn’t actually the largest deposit. Scientists think that it contains about 11 million tons of ore, which is way less than the 77 million tons in the world’s largest hard rock lithium mine in Australia. But of course, this is all just speculation. We won’t know how big it is until somebody digs it out of the ground, if they ever do.
IRA FLATOW: You’ve spoken to Mary and Gary Freeman who found the deposit five years ago. What is their attitude towards what to do with all this lithium?
KATE COUGH: I was actually able to visit the site with Mary and Gary Freeman this June, which was really fascinating. The Freemans are part of a really passionate group of gem hunters in Maine. Those are people who like to look for semi-precious stones recreationally. We have quite a few of them in western Maine.
The Freemans have been buying land and digging for stones like tourmaline and quartz in western Maine for decades now. A lot of their finds have actually wound up on display at the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum in Bethel. And they are very keen about geology.
They were actually looking for a rare type of blue tourmaline when they found this lithium deposit. And they really want the lithium to be extracted. So there’s a lot of money to be made, possibly close to a billion and a half dollars, depending on the market price. So that’s definitely an incentive.
But they’re also pretty pragmatic and clear-eyed about the mineral resources that go into basically everything in our lives. And they believe that they can get the lithium out of the ground in an environmentally responsible way that won’t pollute the land and water around it.
IRA FLATOW: Just as a point of reference, is the deposit on the Freemans’ property?
KATE COUGH: It is. They have been buying land in this area, specifically for gem hunting. They love to look for tourmaline. They have been buying land in this area for decades now. And this particular pit sits in roughly the middle of about 7,000 acres that they own in western Maine. So there’s really– there’s quite a bit of land around them. They own the land. And they own the mineral rights underneath it as well.
IRA FLATOW: And this, of course, is an attempt to get away from the overseas– relying on the overseas supplies of lithium, right?
KATE COUGH: That’s exactly right. So as your listeners have probably heard, there’s lithium in car batteries, there’s lithium in all kinds of things. We use it in mood-stabilizing drugs to help treat depression. We use it for scientific glassware to lower the melting temperature, in computer screens. So we need a lot of it.
And this is a supply chain issue. So the US currently has no lithium processing facilities. We only have one operational lithium mine in Nevada, which means we’re really heavily dependent on other countries, primarily China, to mine and process the lithium that goes into our devices and our batteries. And that’s becoming more of a problem.
We all remember the supply chain issues that came up during COVID. It was really hard to buy a new car because companies couldn’t get semiconductor chips. Lithium is in so many things, it would be hugely disruptive if we suddenly didn’t have access to a source of it or facilities to process it.
So the federal government is trying to fix this. The Biden administration recently launched an initiative to secure a made-in-America supply chain for critical minerals, which includes billions of dollars in funding for companies trying to mine and process critical minerals in the US. As an example, last October, the Department of Energy used the bipartisan infrastructure law to give a $141 million grant to Piedmont Lithium, which is building a lithium processing plant in Tennessee.
IRA FLATOW: That’s really interesting. And the Freemans say they have found a way of environmentally safe taking it out of the ground. But there is still a lot of opposition all over the state, correct?
KATE COUGH: Yeah. That’s correct. I mean, people are rightfully wary of mining operations. The mines that were developed in the past 100 years in the United States and elsewhere have a really poor track record. We’ve probably all seen the photos of that really awful rust-colored water that’s been contaminated by mine waste. And nobody wants that anywhere. And nobody wants that in Maine.
We have a couple of examples of old mines in Maine. One of them is an old pit mine that was a few hours east of the Freemans’ in Brooksville. That was dug in a tidal estuary. It’s now a superfund site. There are heavy metals in the soil there. And it’s cost tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to clean up. So people are rightfully very wary of this.
And people are also very aware because Maine relies heavily on outdoor tourism. And this area of the state has a lot of hiking, has a lot of beautiful lakes and ponds that people depend on for recreation and for drinking water. Poland Springs actually draws water from aquifers not too far from this proposed mine. So I think people are just very afraid of what the potential impacts are.
IRA FLATOW: I’m just thinking about lithium getting into the Poland Springs drinking water and people drinking. And I’m laughing about it, but it’s a serious concern I have is, what happens to all the lithium dust that they mine up, right? It gets up in the air and people inhale it. Do they? I mean, as you say, there are psychiatric disorders like bipolar and depression that you use lithium for.
KATE COUGH: Yeah. Well, we actually have lithium in our bodies. So it’s around us. And it is OK at low concentrations from what I understand. And this lithium deposit– so these rocks that are there right now are actually exposed to the air and to the water.
So one of the primary concerns when you’re mining is that if you expose rocks that have this compound called iron sulfides in them, that’s where you get that rust-colored orange water that’s so detrimental to aquatic life and fish and the environment around it. These rocks don’t have iron sulfides in them. In fact, some of them are actually sitting out there in the open.
I saw them myself. They were– it was actually raining the day that I went. And I saw these rocks out there. They were being rained on. They were being exposed to the air and water. And they hadn’t dissolved away. Some of them have been sitting out there for hundreds, thousands of years, and haven’t dissolved away.
There was actually a brook nearby. It was– the water was sparkling clean. So geologists that I have spoken to– and I’ve talked to a lot of them over the last couple of years– are pretty unanimous in the opinion that this would be safer than certain other kinds of mining because of the geological characteristics of the rocks around it.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, but the but–
KATE COUGH: But the but. There’s always a but.
IRA FLATOW: And that but, I would ask you, this is obviously going to have to play itself out in the courts, the opposition to the mining. We’re looking it must be years down the road here.
KATE COUGH: Yeah, well, I’m not sure. So Maine has very strict metallic mining laws. We don’t have any operational metal mines in the state of Maine at the moment. But lawmakers have been really carefully considering what to do about this particular deposit because we do need lithium for all kinds of things. And it’s important to note, that the lithium in this deposit is so pure that it’s likely it would be used for things like scientific glassware rather than for batteries. Although it could be used for batteries.
IRA FLATOW: Really?
KATE COUGH: Yeah. It’s really high quality. So you don’t need, as I understand it, you don’t need as high quality lithium to make batteries as you do to make other types of things. So this– I mean, the Freemans have no control over the end product. But it would likely be used for something like glassware or something that requires a really pure lithium.
But so lawmakers have been looking for a way to allow them to get this out of the ground safely. So there was a law that was passed in July. It was signed by the governor. And it will start the process of amending the metallic mining law in Maine, and eventually, possibly, allow the Freemans to get this deposit out of the ground. But that rulemaking process is going to take a long time. It’s a public process. There will be lots of time for public comment and studies.
And then once that process is finished– you know it could be a year, it could be two years, it could be more than that. Once that process is finished, then the Freemans can apply for permits. And they would have to do all kinds of studies before they’re allowed to dig this up. So yeah, it’s likely it will be at least several years at the earliest before they could start mining.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, this is quite interesting. We will come back to you and follow the story, OK?
KATE COUGH: OK, that sounds great.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to be with us today. Thank you so much, Kate Cough, reporter and enterprise editor at The Maine Monitor based in Bar Harbor, Maine.