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How Nevada is about to become a leading boron producer

Rhyolite Ridge is known for its lithium, but the proposed mine’s extensive boron reserves could make Nevada a leading exporter.
Amy Alonzo
Amy Alonzo

A modular trailer doubling as a post office sits in the middle of Dyer, across from a general store that is also a deli. The buildings are bisected by Highway 264, a narrow, two-lane affair.

The town’s lone gas pumps stand guard outside the general store; a laundromat, also in a modular trailer, sits next to the post office. Abandoned for some time, tumbleweeds block the door.

Just up the road in Fish Lake Valley is a community center; a mile farther is the elementary school. A smattering of houses on large patches of agricultural land are flanked by the White Mountains to the west, the Silver Peak Range to the east. The number of snowcapped peaks surrounding Dyer and Fish Lake Valley greatly outnumber the cars on the highway.

To call Dyer small is an understatement.

But soon, the number of cars — and people — is likely to substantially increase.

Ioneer, an emerging lithium-boron producer headquartered in Australia, is nearing the final permitting stages for its proposed Rhyolite Ridge mine site — about 30 miles from Dyer. 

The company’s project has garnered attention for its lithium reserves — potentially enough to power 400,000 electric vehicles per year — and the effects it could have on the endangered Tiehm’s buckwheat, a tiny wildflower only found on 10 acres in the Silver Peak Range.

But Rhyolite Ridge is also home to something else — vast reserves of boron, a mineral found in dozens of household products such as laundry detergent and cleaning products, as well as electric vehicles. And, to Bernard Rowe, managing director of Ioneer, it is just as important as lithium.

For every ton of lithium mined at Rhyolite Ridge, 9 tons to 10 tons of boric acid will be unearthed. The revenue from the boric acid, estimated at around $150 million per year, will cover nearly two-thirds of the mine’s operating costs.

“Lithium and boron are the perfect pair because they’re both instrumental to the energy transition,” Rowe said. “It’s … far more than the economic contribution it makes.”

At full operation, the mine is expected to produce around 174,000 tons of boric acid and 22,000 tons of processed lithium materials per year. Ioneer estimates it will sell its lithium at about $13,000 per metric ton and its boron at a little more than $700 per metric ton, but the sheer volume of boron on site will help financially carry the mine. And while lithium’s market price is volatile — it rose sharply in 2022 before plummeting in 2023 — boron’s price and demand is steady.  

The proposed project has largely flown under the radar, but its few opponents have been vocal. Since the amount of boron dwarfs the lithium being produced, the project is largely unjustified, they say.

“Rhyolite Ridge is actually a boron mine that happens to produce lithium as a byproduct,” Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email.

If and when Rhyolite Ridge enters production, Ioneer will become a leading boron producer in the United States. 

“You’ve got to have the right concentration and right form, and Rhyolite Ridge, at least on paper, seems to have that,” said Simon Jowitt, director of the Center for Research in Economic Geology at UNR. 

Fish Lake Hot Spring in Fish Lake Valley, near Rhyolite Ridge, on Feb. 22, 2024. (Amy Alonzo/The Nevada Independent)

‘A stunning spot’

Situated in the central portion of the Silver Peak Range in a basin of rolling hills, Dyer is only 13 miles from Rhyolite Ridge as the crow flies. By car, it’s closer to a 45-minute drive.  

About 15 minutes north of Dyer, a winding dirt road cuts east through Fish Lake Valley, snaking past a vibrantly blue natural hot spring that has a cement soaking tub at one end.

Several people talk in the parking lot; waterfowl stroll along the shore of the natural spring. A pit toilet in the parking lot can be seen for miles across the sprawling valley.

The road continues into the Silver Peak Range, doubling back on itself in a horseshoe shape before cutting up into the rolling hills, then into the mountains themselves.

Driving up to the proposed mine site, Rowe is behind the wheel of a Chevy pickup. Chad Yeftich, Ioneer’s vice president for corporate development and external affairs, is behind the wheel of a Ram.

Neither vehicle is electric.

A half-hour drive from the highway, both stop to look at the mine site, enveloped in a basin that’s the remains of an ancient lakebed surrounded by swirling brown, orange and pink rocks.

“It’s just a stunning spot,” Yeftich says.

Peppered along the road bisecting the site are fences protecting the endangered Tiehm’s buckwheat, a low-growing perennial plant found only in the Silver Peak Range.

The buckwheat — discovered in 1983 — rose to prominence as plans for the mine were developed; now, the plant is on the federal Endangered Species list.

From the summit of a rocky hilltop with dormant Tiehm’s buckwheat scattered below him, Rowe said there’s an “element of sadness” that the area will be developed. “I do think about it,” he said.

But that sadness is tempered by his belief in the need for larger quantities of lithium and boron to be produced on American soil.

Consumption of lithium-ion batteries is growing more than 20 percent per year worldwide. And if Ioneer can get Rhyolite Ridge permitted and up and running, the company will join a select group of boron producers worldwide.

Bernard Rowe, managing director of Ioneer, and Chad Yeftich, Ioneer’s vice president for corporate development and external affairs, discuss Rhyolite Ridge on Feb. 22, 2024. (Amy Alonzo/The Nevada Independent)

‘An extremely important material’

Boron might not be a common household word. But most people use it regularly, if unknowingly.

It’s used in glass to prevent it from shattering. It’s in fertilizer and insecticides, eye drops and some laundry soap. It’s also a micronutrient necessary for plant, animal and human health.

Borate deposits — inorganic salts that contain boron — are tied to volcanic activity and arid climates, limiting its geographic distribution. Turkey is the world’s largest boron producer, with 1.1 billion tons — over 70 percent — of globally known reserves.

The second-largest reserves are in the United States, at the aging U.S. Borax Mine in Southern California. The mine was started by Francis Smith, the same entrepreneur who discovered borates in Death Valley, using teams of mules and giant wagons to haul the product 165 miles to the nearest rail line — Death Valley’s famed 20 Mule Teams.

Smith moved his operation to the now-aptly named Boron, California, in the early 20th century, and Rio Tinto acquired the company in 1967. Today, the mine supplies about 40 percent of the world’s refined borates, including meeting all domestic demand.

Together, Turkey and California produce the majority of the world’s borates in a market expected to grow from $6.57 billion in 2023 to nearly $8 billion this year. Ioneer is hoping its reserves will let the company become a player in that market.

“It’s not a byproduct, it’s a co-product,” said Yeftich. “The boron underpins the economics of this project. Having that steady source of revenue helps sustain the business model during the ups and downs of lithium.”

Ioneer estimates it has the potential to generate more than 10 percent of the world’s boric acid each year.

Amanda Brioche, mineral commodity specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), said the agency is prohibited by law from disclosing company proprietary data, so she could not confirm how the proposed mine would rank in terms of boron production. 

The USGS also does not verify claims of production potential or reserves and could not confirm Ioneer’s production estimates. 

But the company is confident in its production, as are buyers. Ioneer has already signed a binding offtake agreement with a company for 105,000 metric tons of boron annually, representing more than half of Ioneer’s expected boric acid production.

According to the National Academy of Engineering, boric acid is “crucial for decarbonization.” There are roughly 40 kilograms to 50 kilograms of boron-reliant materials in an average electric vehicle, including magnets and dashboard screens. Fiberglass wind turbine blades need boron, as does glass for solar panels.

Boron is not included on the Department of Energy’s 2023 critical materials list, but the department has considered adding it. Proponents argue it is important for wind turbine blades, photovoltaics and battery coatings and should be added to the list; the department countered that boron’s use in those items isn’t driving up the need for the mineral so it doesn’t warrant being listed.

Rob Ghiiglieri, director of Nevada’s Division of Minerals, is surprised boron is not on the critical mineral list.

“Lithium is the hot commodity topic … but it’s not the only mineral needed, and for some reason this one’s not on there,” he said. “I think it’s because nobody knows anything about it, and nobody’s talking about it.”

But a lack of federal designation isn’t deterring Ioneer.

“When you dig below the surface, you realize it’s an extremely important material,” Rowe said. When a foreign country dominates production, as Turkey does, “then it’s a strategic material.

“The thing with lithium, of course, is that there's a lot of people who want to use it. There's a lot of potential sources around the world, there's jostling for who's going to be producing it and where's it going to be dug up and where's it going to be refined and all those sorts of things,” Rowe said. “That does not apply with boron … Unless the world stops using boron, there’s never a situation where we don’t sell it.”

Dyer, Nevada, pictured on Feb. 22, 2024. (Amy Alonzo/The Nevada Independent)

Seeing is believing 

Ioneer isn’t the first to mine at Rhyolite Ridge. Small claims date back for decades, but Rhyolite Ridge marks the first large-scale project at the site.

An average of 2.5 million metric tons of ore will be mined annually for 26 years, and the lithium mined at the site will potentially quadruple current domestic production. Currently, the only operating lithium mine in the U.S. is Albemarle’s Silver Peak, also in Nevada. It produces about 1 percent of the world’s lithium.

And while no shovels have yet hit the ground at Rhyolite Ridge, the U.S. Department of Energy has offered a conditional commitment to loan $700 million to Ioneer for development. 

The mine will have a 931-acre footprint across nearly 7,200 acres of mostly Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. The bureau estimates it will issue a record of decision in October detailing how it will move forward with Ioneer’s proposal.

The timeline is “very aggressive” and “deviates from other project schedules on similar projects completed recently and concurrently at the District and State,” according to a December email sent by a supervisory project manager for the BLM and obtained through a public records request. “Timelines have been cut and several review periods are concurrent that were once separated.” 

Donnelly said there is widespread concern among the botanical community about the harm the mine will cause to the Tiehm’s buckwheat population, adding that it is “highly unusual” for the BLM to intentionally shorten environmental review periods.

“If BLM’s own project manager is saying that BLM will have to essentially ignore public input to achieve the timeline they’re shooting for, that presents serious issues that may require legal action to resolve,” Donnelly said.

Ioneer anticipates two years of construction, with 400 to 500 workers needed, far more than the 300 or so people who call Dyer home. Once operational in 2026, the number of workers needed will drop to between 250 and 300.

The company estimates it will generate $15 million to $25 million in taxes for state and local governments during its two years of construction, and $13 million to $31.5 million annually in tax revenue once operational for local and state governments.

Esmeralda County Commissioner De Winsor, who spent four decades working at Albemarle’s lithium mine, said it’s a misconception that much of that money will make its way to the county. 

“The state will keep the bigger percentage of it,” he told The Nevada Independent

He also shared concerns that many locals have, including how such a large project will affect area wells and county roads. 

“With most of these mining companies, the last thing they ever think about is water or the infrastructure,” he said.

His concern for environmental issues surrounding the mine aren’t as strong — he referred to the “critically imperiled” Tiehm’s buckwheat as “that stupid weed up there.” 

“They’d be pretty close to opening right now if it weren’t for the Tiehm’s buckwheat,” he said. 

Mike Saunders, another Esmeralda County resident, has mixed feelings about Rhyolite Ridge.

“Those who aren’t working on farms are working at the mines already,” he said of the local workforce while leaning out of the window of his pickup at Dyer’s lone gas station. “I don’t think it’s gonna impact us as much as everyone’s saying.”

Yeftich said Ioneer will work around this labor shortage by busing in workers from Tonopah, about 40 miles away as the crow flies, or as far as Hawthorne — a two-hour, one-way drive.

Saunders said when it comes to constructing mines, he’s seen proposals for all types of development over the years never come to fruition.

“I’ll believe it when they break ground,” he said.

It’s a common sentiment, said Yeftich.

“There are so many that are gonna happen that never happen. When it comes to development, people are skeptical,” he said. “People will believe it’s serious when we have the permit in hand.”


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