But in the midst of this environmental disaster, the California Energy Commission estimates that there is enough lithium here to meet all of the projected future demand for the United States and 40% of the world’s demand. This is big news for the rapidly growing electric vehicle industry, as lithium is common in all types of EV batteries.
Traditionally, lithium extraction has involved either open pit mining or evaporation ponds, which work by pumping lithium-rich brine to the surface and waiting for the water to dry. Both of these methods have huge land footprints, are often very water-intensive, and can generate a lot of pollution and waste.
But in the Salton Sea, three companies are developing chemical processes to extract lithium in a more clean way, taking advantage of the Salton Sea’s rich geothermal resources. Near the lake, there are already 11 operating geothermal power plants, ten of which are owned by Berkshire Hathaway’s Department of Renewable Energy, BHE Renewables.
“We’re already pumping 50,000 gallons of salty water per minute to all ten of our geothermal facilities,” said Alicia Knapp, president and CEO of BHE Renewables, “and we’re using the steam from that brine to generate clean energy.” are doing. And so we’re really halfway through that we have lithium on our hands right here.”
Berkshire Hathaway Renewables operates 10 geothermal power plants in the Salton Sea known geothermal resource area
Two other companies, EnergySource and Controlled Thermal Resources, or CTR, are also developing joint geothermal-lithium facilities in the Salton Sea, and General Motors has already committed to sourcing lithium from CTR.
This new industry could be a major economic boon for a region where the majority Mexican-American community faces high rates of unemployment and poverty, and health impacts from toxic dust blown from the drying lakebed of the Salton Sea. .
“We are cautiously excited with respect to Lithium Valley,” said Maria Nava-Frolich, the provisional mayor of Calipatria, the city of about 6,000 where geothermal power plants are located. “We see it as a game changer here. Imperial County ”
Nava-Froelich hopes the industry will bring much-needed jobs and growth to the region, helping revitalize communities that have seen an exodus of youth looking for opportunities elsewhere. And environmentalists hope the influx of attention and money will accelerate efforts to restore California’s Salton Sea and its surrounding environment.
If ever there was a time to bet on domestic mineral projects, it might be now. In late March, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to boost production of EV battery minerals such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite and manganese.
But extracting lithium from geothermal brine has never been done on a large scale before, so it remains to be seen what exactly will benefit the electric vehicle industry, the local community, and the environment.
This is not the first time that interest in lithium recovery at Salton C has been shown. Hyped start-up Symbol Materials previously developed a demonstration plant, but the company ceased operations in 2015 after a failed acquisition attempt by Tesla, and never developed a commercial-scale facility.
Since then, demand for lithium has picked up, and after falling sharply in 2018, prices are rising once again, encouraging projects that may not have been economical before. If the current trio of companies can prove their technological feats, they stand to make a lot of money in this field from hundreds of thousands of tons of lithium.
“Salton Sea Field, fully developed, can serve more than 600,000 tonnes per year, when world production is less than 400 [thousand] Now, said CTR CEO Rod Colwell.
Unlike Berkshire Hathaway and EnergySource, CTR has no geothermal power plants in the area, so it is building a combined geothermal and lithium recovery facility all at once. Currently, the company is building a demonstration plant, and plans to open its first full-scale facility by early 2024, to make 20,000 tons of lithium available to GM.
Colwell estimates that CTR’s first plant will cost a mere $1 billion, a higher cost per ton of lithium than many conventional lithium recovery projects. But all three companies expect the price to drop as the technology advances.
Controlled Thermal Resources is building a combined geothermal power plant and lithium extraction facility, which will provide 20,000 tons of lithium to GM.
Andrew Evers | CNBC
CTR is using ion-exchange technology to recover lithium, which it developed in partnership with Bay Area-based Lilac Solutions. In this method, geothermal brine flows through tanks filled with ceramic beads, which absorb lithium from the brine. When the beads are saturated, the lithium precipitates out with hydrochloric acid, and the lithium chloride remains. It is an intermediary product that CTR plans to refine onsite, which yields lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, a powder that is ready to be processed and converted into precursor chemicals and then manufactured into battery cells. .
Berkshire Hathaway is also using ion-exchange technology, though the company hasn’t disclosed as many specifics as the CTR on how it will work.
EnergySource has developed a technology known as Integrated Lithium Adsorption Desorption, or ILiAD, and is jumping straight into the construction of a full-scale facility, which is expected to be operational by 2024.
,“In terms of production costs we see that the geothermal brine market should be around the first quartile in terms of competition,” said Energy Source CEO Derek Benson.
Notably, all three companies plan to refine lithium onsite, a process that usually takes place overseas. But companies are not equipped to handle the additional steps, such as chemical processing and battery cell manufacturing, which still mainly take place in Asia.
“The rest of the supply chain, hopefully, will also be developed in the US in the coming years,” Knapp said, “so that we can go directly from the lithium and other minerals to the batteries that we’re using. To run our infrastructure, for. ”
EV battery maker Italvolt recently announced plans to launch a new company, Statvolt, with the intention of building a $4 billion Gigafactory in Imperial Valley that will produce enough lithium-ion batteries for 650,000 electric vehicles per year . Statvolt signed a letter of intent from CTR to source lithium and geothermal power, but did not respond to CNBC’s inquiries whether it would do the chemical processing onsite.
The new industry could have a major impact on the Imperial Valley community, where many low-income residents work in agriculture, and the unemployment rate is 12%, three times the national average.
California formed the Lithium Valley Commission to help government, industry and community stakeholders come together and analyze the potential opportunities that lithium recovery could bring.
Luis Olmedo is a member of the Commission, which represents disadvantaged and low-income communities in the Salton Sea geothermal resource area.
“It’s going to be really important that the community is involved and engaged, because if the community isn’t, the vision is being created for them”, Olmedo said. “We know these are key target areas where communities will be taken advantage of. We know that.”
Both Berkshire Hathaway and CTR also have representatives from the Lithium Valley Commission, and emphasize the positive effects they believe the growing industry will bring from property tax revenue, which could benefit local schools and additional government funding. Can fund services, for job creation.
,This community needs us,” Knapp said. “And it’s a great place for us to invest and profit not only as a company, but benefits all of us in the market, as lithium is an integral part of our daily lives.” is very necessary. And these people right here in this community are providing jobs, education, opportunities, just so much economic growth that comes from such huge investments.”
Knapp says they are working with a number of educational institutions in the region, from high schools to community colleges, to four-year institutions, to ensure that those interested in finding jobs in the geothermal and lithium industries The students are properly trained.
“You know, we’re doing about 90% of the trades, right? That’s why we’re not looking for PhDs here,” Colwell said.
Olmedo and Nava-Frolich say they are encouraged by the talks that are taking place, but have been disappointed with the first big talks.
“We’re a little cautious because we don’t want to get our hopes high,” said Nava-Frolich, “it’s all a matter of, is this really happening or are they just talking about it and they freak out.” Can and go somewhere else? It’s almost too good to be true.”
Environmentalists also see this as a moment to catalyze the momentum around habitat restoration in the Salton Sea. While California has been working on the problem for years, advocates are prompting the state to accelerate projects that include creating low-salinity ponds on a dry lakebed where fish and bird species can thrive. And with the state budget surplus, things are finally moving forward.
“They need a long-term vision and a pipeline for additional projects to move forward. So much more needs to be done, but we are starting to see some things happen,” said Michael Cohen, senior research associate, Pacific Institute, a research institute focused on water conservation. “So we’re actually seeing more progress than ever before.”
As mining projects face community concern and backlash in other parts of the country, it looks like lithium recovery in the Salton Sea is on the way. can Be a rare mineral project that unites most of the stakeholders. ie if it works.
Watch the video to learn more about lithium extraction in the Salton Sea, and take a look at the plants operated and built by BHE Renewables, EnergySource, and Controlled Thermal Resources.