Thacker Pass, lithium, and mining

U.S. Route 50 across the State of Nevada is called “The Loneliest Road in America” and it’s a reasonable description. There’s a whole lotta nuthin’ out there. But I would like to nominate State Route 140 for consideration. In Nevada SR 140 emerges from US-95 just north of Winnemucca. It travels west to the Oregon state line (but retains the 140 designation) and continues to the isolated burg of Lakeview, on to Klamath Falls, and ultimately terminates near Medford in the Rogue Valley. The highway in effect connects I-80 to I-5.

The stretch of 140 from Denio Junction in Nevada to Adel in Oregon (just east of Lakeview) could be the far side of the moon. It’s as bleak and desolate as any stretch of road here in the rural West. Do not attempt the drive in an unreliable vehicle—the only creatures that will find you if you break down are the vultures.

This lonely place could soon be a lot busier. A Canada-based multinational corporation called Lithium Americas wants to build a mine near Thacker Pass. Here’s a map:

Nevada is a mining state. Gold, silver, and copper are produced in large quantities and the industry is crucial to the economy. In fact The Silver State is considered by many as the top mining area in the world. This is not just due to the abundant resources. It is a reflection of the social and political stability as well as the excellent infrastructure. The rule of law still works in the US of A, a fact miners are well aware of. Investments in unstable and volatile regions of the world are much riskier. Even a modern, civilized country like Chile, the world’s largest copper producer, presents formidable political barriers to economic development. Codelco is a state-owned company, for example, that was formed in the 1970s by nationalizing the foreign holdings in the country. Our southern neighbor, Mexico, just announced the formation of a state-run company to exploit that country’s lithium resources.

Enter Lithium Americas and their Thacker Pass project. This is the kind of thing international mining outfits are interested in. It’s a private venture (but a public company, it trades on the NYSE) and obviously subject to local, state, and federal oversight, but it’s in a (mostly) free-market economy. This means the company and its investors can make money.

Lithium is a key battery material and thus critical to electric vehicles. Demand for lithium is surging and expected to keep growing. Most of the world’s lithium comes from less desirable jurisdictions so there is a lot of excitement about a large-scale domestic lithium mine.

Naturally there is opposition. Mines are messy. The industry has a poor track record. It’s legacy of boom-and-bust, toxic waste, and colossal traffic impacts is well known. Air and water quality both suffer in mined regions and mines can make some places uninhabitable when they are finally closed.

Modern mining companies like Lithium Americas say they can do things better. There is a much bigger industry effort toward so-called ESG concerns—environmental, social, and governance. Corporations don’t have a lot of credibility in these matters, I think that is safe to say, but I’m not sure we have a choice. Wouldn’t we rather have a domestic mine where we have at least a chance of public oversight than import our commodities from some half-assed third-world despotic regime? I think the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Humans make a big impact on the earth. Citizens in comfortable and wealthy first-world societies like to push their environmental problems overseas. Don’t want to see the local forests cut? No problem, just import logs, or worse, finished lumber, from some other place. Don’t want to see oil wells or offshore drilling platforms? Then buy oil from the Saudis. Don’t like mines in the wild, wide-open spaces? Just buy what you need on the international market and don’t worry if kids are digging the stuff out of the ground and poisoning themselves and their communities in the process.

I say “bullshit.” We are big boys and girls. If we need lithium we should dig it up ourselves and clean up our goddamn messes. And we should employ local people and see that profits find their way to local communities impacted by the mining. This is what economic development is supposed to do! So I say let’s make it work. And if we fail it will be our failure, and we will have to work to make it right. Do we really think we will be better served by pushing such problems away?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words so I’ll leave you with a photo of the Thacker Pass area where they hope to be mining lithium soon:

Fire season, and beyond

We recently experienced a scary forest fire within just a few miles of where I sit right now. The so-called McKinney Fire burned some 65,000 acres or about 100 square miles. Think about that—one hundred square miles is a square ten miles on a side. Ten times ten is a hundred.

A useful fact of North American geographical history is that one square mile of surveyed land is equal to 640 acres. Multiply that by one hundred. You can see now that a 65,000 acre fire is a little bit more than 100 square miles.

Try to imagine a quadrilateral of open land ten miles in length and ten miles in width. Ten miles is a real hike. Over flat ground and at a relaxed walking pace of two miles per hour that’s a five-hour excursion. To walk the entire boundary of the parcel is a forty-mile expedition. That’s a lot of ground.

Now imagine those one hundred square miles are not flat but steep, and even worse, rocky, and cut with numerous gulches and canyons. Add a covering of timber and heavy brush and you have the setting for the McKinney Fire.

The firefighters did an amazing job and with help from the weather gods they got the big blaze under control. Later they sent in the post-fire teams and called it over and went on to the next assignment. The professionalism and skill of the entire firefighting apparatus was a thing to behold. They are getting scarily good at this stuff. Lately they’ve had more than enough practice and it looks like that’s going to continue. That’s what happens when summers are hotter and winters are drier.

I can see remnants of the McKinney Fire out my window as I type. Big, new bulldozer tracks have been carved into the scrubby woodlands that cover the flanks of the ridge. They’ve been cleaned up nicely and look like real roads. They will be excellent firebreaks if anything ever comes down that hillside, and they will serve as access and escape routes.

These bare-dirt swaths mark up the wildland with a fierce urgency. They aren’t put in for looks but for emergency utility. They radiate a no-nonsense vibe.

But I have come to appreciate their artistry. Every town should have these moats around them. Fire season is year-round now. Every wildland interface needs at least a nip and a tuck if not full-on plastic surgery. We need a new aesthetic. One that adapts to a new vision for natural landscapes. These landscapes need open stretches of bare ground. They need trees removed. They need brush cleared. They need the obvious hand of humankind managing them.

We have a great love of wildness. And we like to see unspoiled nature. But that is an increasingly impractical notion. We are too vulnerable to fire. We have to re-imagine where we live to include stuff that says, loud and clear, “this is for the next big one.” I really like those ribbons of new road criss-crossing in my viewshed. It makes me feel like the folks who put them in were indeed thinking about “next time.”

Two more fires, the Mill Fire and the Mountain Fire, have hit nearby since McKinney. They are both still active incidents. Ash and cinders from both fires were blown into our yard. It has been a painful summer around here. Let’s hope it gets better soon. And let’s hope we can be more resilient in the future.

#45, Rhodium

One of the most polluting and most energy-intensive things we do is to drive our cars and trucks. Gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines are at best about 35% efficient. Most of the time the car is even less efficient, as low as 10-15%, and commonly 25-30%. That means at least two-thirds of the energy in the fuel tank of a car is wasted. Diesels are a little better, but those vehicles suffer from the same inefficiencies: engine heat loss, wind and rolling resistance, braking, friction, idling, etc. You can only get so much useful energy out of an explosion! I should note that Nissan engineers claim they can get 50% thermal efficiency in a gas motor. Right on, I hope it works.

Why should you care about thermal efficiency? The goal of any energy transformation is to make it as clean as possible. To get the most out the resource with the least pain to society. To conserve in the true sense of the word, that of wise use.

Rhodium is the rarest of all non-radioactive metals It is similar to platinum. Ruthenium, palladium, osmium, and iridium are all grouped with platinum because they are all hard and corrosion-resistant. They work well as precious metals and in jewelry, in electronics, dentistry, and most important of all, as catalysts.

80% of the world’s rhodium —this extremely rare precious metal, mind you—is used in catalytic converters.

These devices are great. They really, seriously clean up vehicle exhaust. All of us benefit from this technology. And we should appreciate that there are laws requiring such devices on our vehicles. This stuff makes the air better. We would make the air even better if we drove less, but that it seems is harder to do.

Here’s some cool nerdy stuff about catalytic converters and thus about rhodium, an element you should learn to appreciate.

Una manzana al día

I don’t exactly eat an apple every day, but it’s close. I love apples. I eat them year-round. We don’t think much about year-round food, but we should. After all, apples are harvested in the fall in North America. Even with the high-tech storage the apple industry uses which can keep freshly-picked apples marketable for months, there will be gaps in the supply.

Enter South America. Chile, specifically. Since their seasons are the opposite of ours—their winter is our summer—they can supply us with apples in the lean times. Not just apples of course but a huge variety of other fruits like berries and grapes.

Here’s the label on the apple bag, the last batch from Raley’s I just finished:

I checked out COPEFRUT. They are an agricultural cooperative based in Curicó, Chile, which is in the country’s central valley, a large depression west of the Andes and bounded by the coastal mountains. It has a Mediterranean climate similar to our own Central Valley here in California and thus is a great place to grow things. The organic apples come from the Maule and Araucanía Regions:

Apples are typically exported via refrigerated containers on ships. The trip to LA or another western port from the Chilean coast takes about two weeks. And as I mentioned earlier, the apple industry has sophisticated atmosphere-controlled storage options that allow wholesalers to supply multiple markets over a span of several weeks. That way I can have fresh, delicious apples year-round at my local supermarket.

Maritime transport is the most energy-efficient way to move things between continents. Air transport has a much, much larger carbon footprint. There’s a lot of interest these days in local, farm-fresh foods. Those of course are seasonal supplies. Most people I know want their coffee and bananas year-round. And once I could get the kind of apples I like every single week of the year in the produce section of my local store I got hooked. I would definitely miss my “apple a day” if the Chileans decided to sell their stuff elsewhere!

Farm-to-table is great. Support your local growers. But that’s just part of the picture. Our food supply is a complex web of global traffic. That’s why a war in Ukraine can effect grain prices. We are all connected together even if we don’t want to be. If we want to keep eating, and eat well, we should hope that all the ways we get our food are part of healthy, robust systems. These systems require huge inputs of both human and material energy. A hell of a lot of people have to work together to make sure these things get done. And that’s OK by me, after all getting a bunch of people to work together is a good thing, right?

#50, Tin

Tin is a metal from antiquity. Copper is most likely the first metal people ever worked. And they probably discovered that mixing in a little tin really helped. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, with tin making up about 1/8 (~12%) of the mixture. You’ve heard of the Bronze Age, I’m sure, so you can imagine how important tin was to early societies.

Tin is not nearly as abundant as copper but the ore of tin, cassiterite (SnO2), is easy to smelt. That made it available to ancient peoples who probably used wood charcoal for the task. The Latin word stannum is the source of the symbol (Sn) for tin. Our English word is of German origin. Tin mining in Cornwall, the southwest edge of the isle of Britain, dates from two thousand years before Christ.

If you ever fooled around with electronics you probably did some soldering. Most of the tin in the world goes into making solders. And much of the rest of the tin goes into making cans. We still call them “tin cans” and they simply call them “tins” in England and Australia. The cans are made of steel but they have a thin layer of tin on them. The material is actually called “tinplate” and has been used for decades to store food and other substances. The tin is corrosion-resistant so the cans (and the food) have a longer shelf life.

Steel cans get lined with plastic films these days. That way acidic foods like tomato sauce won’t eat away at the metals. Unfortunately some of the plastics aren’t the best and there have been concerns about BPA (Bisphenol-A) contamination. Tin itself is not biologically active. Tin poisoning is very rare, particularly from metallic tin and its inorganic compounds. Organic tin compounds, called stannanes, can be toxic, however.

Tin is the traditional gift for a tenth anniversary. It is supposed to be a symbol of durability. Being that we depend on tinned steel cans for our food and tin solder in our electronic devices I’d say element #50 will certainly endure.

Feedback loops

We have to go to Redding on Thursday. It’s going to be hot. Look at those “Low” temperatures: 75 and 77 ºF!

My world is warming, that much I know.

This creates a feedback loop. As temperatures rise, people need more indoor climate control. In today’s world that means “air conditioning.” An air conditioner is just a refrigerator. A fridge though only has to cool a small box. An air conditioner has to cool a room. Or a whole house. Or an entire building.

More demand for air conditioning means more demand for electricity. And that means more primary energy. Coal and gas plants have to burn more coal and more natural gas. More wind and solar farms have to be built. Construction projects need building materials and the energy to power the machinery. (Even nuclear plants have to replace the fuel rods now and then.) All of that requires more ore to be dug, more minerals extracted, more products manufactured, and more fossil fuels to be consumed. All of those processes also produce waste heat, and the more we do them, the more waste heat we make.

So, the hotter it gets, the hotter it gets. We have to heat up the world to cool down our little corner of it.

Much of the electricity in the West comes from hydroelectric projects. Dams. You need full reservoirs to get the most out of a hydroelectric system. Warmer weather means faster evaporation from those big, flat, bodies of water. And drier winters means less snowpack, and thus a lot less spring meltwater to fill the streams that fill the reservoirs behind the dams. The dams need falling water to spin turbines that make our electricity. The electricity we need more of because it is getting hotter!

That’s the feedback loop. We’re hot, so we run our A/C more, so we heat up the planet more, so we get hotter, and run the A/C even more, ad infinitum. Well, it won’t last forever. There’s no infinity here. Eventually the system will break down. Either the A/C will quit or the electricity will go out or both. Or civilization will collapse. Entropy will ensue, that’s for sure, and that means we’ll be scrambling to keep up.

Civilization doesn’t have to collapse, of course. That’s just a worst-case scenario. But we’ve certainly got plenty of scrambling to do to keep things working. The investments in energy, technology, and manufacturing necessary to maintain and improve our infrastructure in a changing world are enormous. Here in California, a modern place, most of the homes already built have no A/C and have to be retro-fitted. My house is 100 years old! It’s not nearly insulated enough. If it were built today it would be sealed up as tight as a zip-lock baggie. That would reduce my energy consumption.

That’s the kind of feedback loop we want. If we insulate our homes better, we cut down on our demand for electricity. We should all be living in half-buried foam igloos if we really wanted to be energy-efficient, but that’s not going to be a popular choice. In the meantime, bust out the weather-stripping and save the world.

#10, Neon

There wouldn’t be much to Las Vegas without neon. We are all familiar with the orange-red glow of neon from the many signs we’ve seen our whole lives. “OPEN” and “VACANCY” are probably the most common but of course every bar and lounge in the country has neon-sign beer adverts festooning the walls and beckoning customers from the windows.

Gas discharge tubes work by filling a vacuum space (like a glass tube) with a substance (like neon gas) at very low pressure. Electric current is passed through the gas in the tube and you get ionization. Some of the gas atoms lose an electron and these electrons migrate to the anode (one end of the tube). The gas ions formed migrate in the electric field towards the cathode (the other end of the tube). On the way they collide with neutral atoms and re-gain an electron. This lowers their energy state and a photon of light is emitted. Most of the photons are in the orange-red spectrum and that’s what we see.

Neon is a so-called “noble” gas. The far right column of the periodic table (group 18) contains the family of inert gases: helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon. All are interesting chemically because their outermost electron shells are filled and thus they are not very reactive. It takes a lot of energy or unusual circumstances for these atoms to form compounds. They do ionize however, and when all the atoms in a gas become ions the material is known as plasma. This is often thought of as the fourth state of matter after solids, liquids, and gases. Much of our universe—stars, for example—are plasmas. Lightning is a plasma. Neon and mercury vapor mixtures were used in the tiny cells of the first plasma television sets. Similar gas mixtures form the plasma in fluorescent lighting.

The next time you look at a neon sign beckoning you to drink, gamble, or both, think about plasma. After all, we are stardust. The atoms that make us up were born in stars a long time ago. And to stardust we will eventually return. First the earth will recycle the atoms in our bodies. Some long time later galaxies will collide and recycle whole solar systems. Perhaps on some distant planet in the far future a primitive being will build a device that excites the atoms that once were part of you and they will glow with the colors of the universe.

A seven billion-dollar bet

Barrick Gold is a Canada-based mining company with a market capitalization of about $28 billion. If this seems like a lot you might compare it to Apple which is the world’s biggest by market cap, over two trillion dollars, or two thousand billion if that’s easier to grasp. It’s like you have $28 in your pocket and your buddy has $2000!

Barrick has over 21,000 employees which is about half the population of Siskiyou County. Compare that to the world’s biggest employer, Walmart, which has over two million in its ranks. Again, you’ve got 21 bucks and your pal has 2000!

The biggest mining company in the world is the Australia-based BHP. They weigh in at $128 billion. Barrick is 15th on the list of mining companies.

So they aren’t a small player. They are one of the “majors” in the mining industry. They are making a big seven billion-dollar bet on a copper mine called Reko Diq in a faraway place. A dangerous and unstable place.

Pakistan. And near the border of both Iran and Afghanistan.

The thing is, there’s no mine. Not yet. It’s just an undeveloped area with lots of copper and gold potential. It’s going to cost Barrick seven billion dollars to make it into a producing area. They hope to have a mine that lasts 40 years and can produce up to 80 million tonnes of ore annually.

All the wealth that is tied up in the world’s richest companies, like Saudi Aramco at number two ($2 T), Microsoft at number three ($1.9 T), followed by Alphabet ($1.4 T) and Amazon ($1.2 T), is dependent on the mining industry. I note that the market’s darling, Tesla, is listed at number six ($760 B), and is thus the poster child for mining. All the copper needed for the electric motors, the lithium and nickel for the batteries, not to mention the steel and aluminum requirements that all vehicles share, will have to come from big holes in the ground.

Those holes in the ground have to be where the stuff is. And the stuff could be in a crazy place like Pakistan. I think it’s amazing that an outfit like Barrick is willing to make a seven billion-dollar bet. That’s a big chunk of their overall wealth (one-fourth of their market cap). Would Apple make a five-hundred billion-dollar bet on a new product? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Let’s hope the bet pays off. We’ll need the copper, that’s for sure. A seven billion-dollar bet is one dollar from each person in the world. I know there’s folks out there that could not part with that dollar as they might go hungry. So I’m willing to pony up a few hundred to cover some of them. How about the rest of you?

#77, Iridium

Iridium is very rare. The best place to find it is in meteorites. In 1980 a team led by physicist Luis Alvarez and his son the geologist Walter Alvarez discovered sedimentary rock layers containing unusually high amounts of iridium. These rock layers occurred worldwide and were dated to 66 million years ago, a time known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary.

During this time a mass extinction event took place on the earth. Many forms of life were wiped out—most famously the dinosaurs. The Alvarez duo proposed that an asteroid impacted the earth and that event and its subsequent “nuclear winter” were the primary cause of the extinction. They got this idea because iridium is present in higher concentrations in astronomical (off-earth) bodies than it is in earth rocks. In a remarkable bit of scientific inference they proposed that evidence of a cosmic collision—namely a crater—should be found to support the hypothesis. Sure enough the Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán peninsula was discovered about ten years later. It was ultimately mapped out and found to contain the appropriate geological signatures suggesting its impact was about 66 million years ago, right on the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary.

These days the Alavarez hypothesis is widely accepted as the best description of this remarkable extinction event. I got to hear Walter Alvarez give a talk once. He taught a bunch of science teachers some plate tectonics then treated us to an open, free-ranging discussion of his and his father’s work. We asked lots of questions and wound up with a great lesson on induction and the general nature of scientific inquiry. I still have my notes on plate tectonics but I put my pencil down for the rest of it. Too bad, I wish I could remember more about that afternoon!

Iridium is very hard and dense and is alloyed with platinum or osmium to make strong, corrosion resistant parts and tools for specialized industrial and electronic applications. Iridium crucibles, for example, are use in high-temperature crystallography. Only about six metric tons of iridium are produced annually. The very scarcity of iridium in the earth’s surface is what led to the Alvarez’ interest in it when they found it in high concentrations. Their persistence in trying to make sense of those deposits led to their bold claims about an extraterrestrial cause for the mass extinction of life on earth. It’s a crazy notion that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs and yet we pretty much take it for granted today! Even if a better hypothesis some day replaces the Alvarez story theirs is such an interesting piece of scientific detective work that opened up new avenues of thinking about evolution that we’ll likely be talking about it for decades.

The Williamette meteorite was found in Oregon and is now on display in NYC at the American Museum of Natural History. It contains 4.7 ppm of iridium which is almost 5000 times greater than the normal crustal abundance of 0.001 ppm.

By User:Dante Alighieri – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


There’s a reason Stephen King is the best-selling novelist of all time: he’s good. He’s very good. There aren’t many who can do what he does. And what does he do? He writes great stories. He creates interesting characters. He is a master of plot, pacing, and suspense. He can work in any genre. In short he delivers the goods and he’s been delivering the goods for just shy of fifty years.

For a long time King was not taken seriously by the literary establishment. I remember once looking for a King book in City Lights Bookstore, that iconic San Francisco gathering place for poets, hippies, and bohemians. King’s books were of course in the Horror section. But Anne Rice of Interview with a Vampire fame was in the Literature section! I couldn’t figure that one out.

That time is no more. A new King book will now be featured in The New York Times Book Review. Surely you’ve “made it” as a writer if those guys cover your stuff.

Hard Case Crime has resurrected the look and feel of the paperback originals of the 1950s and 1960s. Many great writers like John D. MacDonald, Donald E. Westlake, and Philip K. Dick “made their bones” on such imprints as Avon, Ace, Ballantine, Berkley, Dell, etc. That market dried up a long time ago and books from that era are prized by collectors.

King has contributed three titles to Hard Case: The Colorado Kid (2005), Joyland (2013), and now Later. The latest is by far the best. The other two are good but a little tame for my taste. Later features something that King does better than anyone else and that’s a young protagonist. King does amazing kid characters. They think and talk and act like kids but they get involved in seriously heavy shit and have to do adult things in order to survive. King has written about childhood and adolescence probably more than any other American novelist. He has a sense of the loneliness and the lost innocence that all of us experience growing up and he has mined that terrain for decades. (If you really want an idea of King’s power as a storyteller and as a chronicler of growing up then you must read It.) In King’s world, dramatic and traumatic events from youth reverberate throughout an adult’s life and their attendant terrors return again and again until a spectacular catharsis breaks the spell.

If it sounds a bit like pop psychology, it is. The field of psychology has done more for writers than anyone else, generating a gold mine of possible motivations for almost any act. In King’s hands the links of the chain fit together. The journey the reader takes with the characters feels real even if it contains supernatural elements. The emotions—anxiety, panic, fear—that he evokes in the reader are real. Like I said, he’s a master.

I recommend Later as a good King “starter” book. Lots of people are turned off by the horror label or just don’t like scary stories in general. Later is scary but not in the way vampires or zombies are scary. Like any good writer King uses the forms and tropes of the scary story to talk about real-life things like trying to stay true to yourself in an oppressive and chaotic world. Reading King makes you examine your own life choices as you struggle with the impossible ones his characters have to make.

And if you like Later I’ve got a few suggestions for what you might read next!