Environmental risks stack up floor to ceiling when you are in the business of hard rock open pit mining. If you start messing with underground salt domes and something goes wrong, you are in a Fukushima without the hazardous radiation Armageddon mess.
The lithium mine on Thacker Pass in Humboldt County Nevada will remain in operation until 2070. When finished the 18,000 acres will undergo a process of remediation. There is a lot to be concerned about, and we have to get this right.
In Delta, Utah there are a different set of worries. Using salt caverns to store diesel, gasoline, hydrogen, and natural gas all could make trouble. Nearby earthquake faults, relatively active, could damage a dome and trigger all manner of environmental mayhem.
Extracting lithium from ore requires the use of sulfur dioxide. Same stuff found in common car batteries. For safety trains will bring the separate components for making sulfur dioxide to Winnemucca, each separate part is then trucked to the processing facility up at the mine where it is mixed before the start of the manufacturing process. Evaporation ponds are more common to lithium refining, extracting lithium from ore with sulfur dioxide has proven harder to scale commercially. In October 2022, about 18 months from now construction will be complete, processing will begin, and we’ll soon know if this is going to pencil out. The world needs this to work.
The technological leap in Delta, Utah is no sure thing either. Timeline is longer, the experimental Mitsubishi turbines won’t be ready to start spinning until 2025. Over the next 48 months a large scale electrolyzer will begin producing hydrogen from water, separating and storing the green hydrogen in the salt domes while releasing the two oxygen molecules harmlessly into the atmosphere. This bit of magic has never been attempted at scale and there are a million ways this can go off the rails. All living creatures on earth have a dog in this hunt, we need this new technology to work.
Mitsubishi will first try to spin the turbines using a blend of 30% hydrogen with 70% methane. The combustion process is complex, hydrogen burns hotter, the turbines and exhaust gases create new challenges. To fuel with pure hydrogen special stainless intake and exhaust manifolds will need to be designed, metallurgically refined turbine blades capable of withstanding the heat generated by the hydrogen will be installed. Engineers are working to zero out nitrogen oxide exhaust gases created in the combustion process. Mitsubishi is confident this technology can work, it’s just that nobody has done it yet. There’s a first time for everything.
The 18,000 acre mine on Thacker Pass is potent environmental problem solver. Imagine the thousands of offshore oil platforms scattered across thousands of miles in the Gulf of Mexico all being safely shutdown. Imagine the fossil fuel operations in West Texas, Eastern New Mexico, Alaska, North Dakota, Wyoming, Louisiana and Oklahoma all no longer being needed. Mining for other metals will be necessary, the electricity for this new century isn’t cost free, but it will be cleaner, the atmosphere will begin to heal, we have a path, we can do this right.
In the United States there remain about 75 coal fired generating stations to shutter. Job losses will devastate the communities where these facilities and workers are located. As of now without salt domes adjacent to a power station the cost of repowering with hydrogen doesn’t pencil out. The energy transition is a term of art for the creative destruction the climate emergency has unleashed. Our fragile politics is that red flashing light on our dashboard. The fossil fuel industry isn’t going to go quietly. Not here, not anywhere, those working on the transition have to build out a new energy system and build out a glide path for all the businesses and people disrupted by this change.
An arctic blast knocks Texas out. In the Atlantic the Gulf Stream is stalling. All around the world promised targeted reductions in carbon dioxide are missed. The urgency of our circumstances keeps confronting us. The mine up on Thacker Pass, the salt domes in Utah offer us a way forward, a chance to work mankind’s magic. Traveling between California and Colorado getting a firsthand look at the efforts that are underway, the work being done. We are in a climate emergency, the world is responding, the efforts give hope, we have a path, a way to walk this crisis back, there is still much to do.