About 40 miles north of the California-Mexico border lies the shrinking, landlocked lake often known as the Salton Sea. Once the epicenter of a thriving resort neighborhood, water contamination and a long time of drought have contributed to a collapse of the lake’s as soon as vibrant ecosystem, and given rise to ghost cities.
But amidst this environmental catastrophe, the California Energy Commission estimates that there is sufficient lithium right here to satisfy the entire United States’ projected future demand, and 40% of all the world’s demand. That’s huge information for the booming electrical automobile trade, as lithium is the frequent denominator throughout all varieties of EV batteries.
Traditionally, lithium extraction includes both open-pit mining or evaporation ponds, which work by pumping lithium-containing brine to the floor and ready for the water to dry up. Both of those strategies have big land footprints, are sometimes very water-intensive, and might create a number of contamination and waste.
But on the Salton Sea, three firms are growing chemical processes to extract lithium in a a lot cleaner manner, profiting from the Salton Sea’s wealthy geothermal assets. Near the lake, there are already 11 working geothermal energy crops, ten of that are owned by Berkshire Hathaway’s renewable power division, BHE Renewables.
“We are already pumping 50,000 gallons of brine per minute across all of our ten geothermal facilities to the surface,” stated Alicia Knapp, President and CEO of BHE Renewables, “And we’re using the steam from that brine to generate clean energy. And so we’re really halfway there in that we’ve got the lithium right here in our hands.”
Berkshire Hathaway Renewables operates 10 geothermal energy crops within the Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area
Two different firms, EnergySource and Controlled Thermal Resources, or CTR, are additionally growing joint geothermal-lithium amenities on the Salton Sea, and General Motors has already dedicated to supply lithium from CTR.
This new trade could possibly be a serious financial boon to the area, the place the bulk Mexican-American neighborhood faces excessive charges of unemployment and poverty, and suffers well being impacts from the poisonous mud that blows off the Salton Sea’s drying lakebed.
“We’re cautiously excited in regards to the Lithium Valley,” stated Maria Nava-Froelich, the non permanent mayor of Calipatria, the town of about 6,000 the place the geothermal energy crops are positioned, “We see it as a game changer here for the Imperial County.”
Nava-Froelich hopes the trade will convey a lot wanted jobs and improvement to the area, serving to to revitalize communities have seen an exodus of younger individuals in search of alternatives elsewhere. And environmentalists hope that the inflow of consideration and cash will hasten California’s efforts to revive the atmosphere in and across the Salton Sea.
If there have been ever a time to guess on home mineral tasks, it is likely to be now. At the top of March, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to spice up manufacturing of EV battery minerals like lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite and manganese.
But extracting lithium from geothermal brines has by no means been performed earlier than at scale, so it stays to be seen what advantages the electrical automobile trade, the area people, and the atmosphere will truly see.
This is not the primary time that there is been curiosity in lithium restoration on the Salton Sea. Hyped start-up Simbol Materials beforehand developed an illustration plant, however the firm ceased operations in 2015 after a failed acquisition try by Tesla, and by no means developed a commercial-scale facility.
Since then, demand for lithium has shot up, and after falling sharply in 2018, costs are surging as soon as once more, incentivizing tasks that may not have been economical earlier than. If the present trio of firms can show their tech works, they stand to make some huge cash from the tons of of 1000’s of tons of lithium within the space.
“The Salton Sea field, fully developed, could serve well over 600,000 tons a year, when the world production is less than 400 [thousand] now, said Rod Colwell, CEO of CTR.
Unlike Berkshire Hathaway and EnergySource, CTR doesn’t have any geothermal power plants in the region, so it’s building a joint geothermal and lithium recovery facility all at once. Currently, the company is constructing a demonstration plant, and plans to open its first full-scale facility by the beginning of 2024, providing 20,000 tons of lithium to GM.
Colwell estimates that CTR’s first plant will cost just shy of $1 billion, a steeper price per ton of lithium than many traditional lithium recovery projects. But all three companies expect that price to drop as the technology develops further.
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 is flushed out with hydrochloric acid, and lithium chloride remains. This is an intermediary product that CTR plans to refine onsite, yielding lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, a powder that’s ready to be processed and transformed into precursor chemicals and then manufactured into battery cells.
Berkshire Hathaway is also using ion-exchange technology, though the company hasn’t revealed as many specifics as CTR about how it will work.
EnergySource has developed technology known as Integrated Lithium Adsorption Desorption, or ILiAD, and it’s jumping straight into building a full-scale facility, which it expects to be operational by 2024.
“What we see by way of manufacturing prices is that geothermal brine must be across the first quartile by way of market competitiveness,” said Derek Benson, CEO of EnergySource.
Notably, all three companies plan to refine the lithium onsite, a process that normally takes place overseas. But the companies aren’t equipped to handle additional steps, such as chemical processing and battery cell manufacturing, which still primarily take place in Asia.
“The rest of the supply chain, hopefully in the coming years will also be developed in the US,” said Knapp, “so that we’re able to go straight from lithium and other minerals in the ground to batteries that we’re using to run our infrastructure.”
EV battery maker Italvolt recently announced plans to launch a new company, Statevolt, with the intent to build a $4 billion dollar Gigafactory in Imperial Valley that would produce enough lithium ion batteries for 650,000 electric vehicles per year. Statevolt signed a Letter Of Intent to source lithium and geothermal power from CTR, but did not respond to CNBC’s inquiry about whether it will do 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%, over three times the national average.
California formed the Lithium Valley Commission so that government, industry and community stakeholders could come together and analyze the potential opportunities that lithium recovery could bring.
Luis Olmedo is a member of the commission, representing 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 there, the vision is going to be drawn out for them”, Olmedo said. “We know that these are prime target areas where communities will be taken advantage of. We know that.”
Both Berkshire Hathaway and CTR also have representatives on the Lithium Valley Commission, and stress the positive impacts that they believe the burgeoning industry will bring, from property tax revenue that could benefit local schools and fund additional government services, to job creation.
“This community needs us,” Knapp said. “And this is a fantastic place for us to invest and benefit not just ourselves as a company, but benefit all of us in the market, as lithium is so essential to our daily lives. And these people right here in this community by providing jobs, education, opportunities, just all the economic development that comes with that big of an investment.”
Knapp says that they’re working with plenty of instructional establishments within the space, from excessive faculties to neighborhood faculties to 4 12 months establishments, to make it possible for college students fascinated about getting a job within the geothermal and lithium industries are correctly skilled.
“You know, we’re about 90% trades, right? So we’re not looking for a bunch of PhDs here,” stated Colwell.
Olmedo and Nava-Froelich say they’re inspired by the conversations which can be occurring, however they’ve been dissatisfied by huge speak earlier than.
“We are a little cautious because we don’t want to get our hopes up high,” Nava-Froelich stated, “All this talk, is it really happening or are they just kind of talking about it and they may pull out and go somewhere else? It’s almost too good to be true.”
Environmentalists additionally see this as a second to catalyze momentum round habitat restoration on the Salton Sea. While California has been engaged on the issue for years, advocates are pushing the state to expedite tasks that contain creating decrease salinity ponds on the dry lakebed the place fish and hen species can thrive. And with the state’s finances surplus, issues are lastly shifting.
“They need a longer term vision and a pipeline for additional projects moving forward. So there’s a lot more that needs to be done, but we’re starting to see some things happen,” stated Michael Cohen, Senior Research Associate on the Pacific Institute, a analysis institute centered on water conservation. ”So we’re seeing extra progress than we have seen ever, actually.”
As mining tasks face neighborhood concern and backlash in different elements of the nation, it looks as if lithium restoration on the Salton Sea may be the uncommon minerals undertaking that unites most stakeholders. That is, if it really works.
Watch the video to study extra about lithium extraction on the Salton Sea, and to get a take a look at the crops being operated and constructed by BHE Renewables, EnergySource, and Controlled Thermal Resources.