Lithium galore in California

Money makes the world go ‘round, but lithium is the metallic element that helps spin the wheels of electric vehicles. The lithium-ion battery is a crucial component of most rechargeable technologies, whether EVs, laptop computers, or energy storage for solar power, and recent demand has led to a supply crunch.

While virtually all the lithium used in the United States is imported from South America, lithium itself is not necessarily rare. In fact, one of the richest lithium resources in the world is in California and is relatively easy to access by an industry already active in the state.

That’s the finding of a state-sponsored blue-ribbon panel, convened in 2021, which released its final report in early December 2022. The commission looked at the potential for extracting lithium from the hot brines brought up from deep wells near the Salton Sea, a region of southern California that is a geothermal hotspot. Facilities there have been using the brine to generate electricity for years, but only in the past few years has the mineral content of the brine received scrutiny.

“The National Renewable Energy Laboratory reported in 2021 that the Salton Sea Known Geothermal Area has the capacity to produce 600,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent products per year,” said Rod Colwell, Chief Executive Officer of Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR), a geothermal company based in El Centro, Calif. That’s the equivalent to current worldwide production.

The resource is so rich that boosters have rebranded the Imperial Valley, long known for its irrigated farmland, as the Lithium Valley. One of the key recommendations of the so-called Lithium Valley Commission was to “accelerate state planning for investment and upgrades in transmission for geothermal power plants in Imperial Valley to be online in 2024 and over the next decade.”

At present, lithium is mined either via hard rock or evaporating lithium-rich water, but both those methods can take an environmental toll. For instance, it may take many months for brines to evaporate, leaving thousands of square miles covered by a toxic solution.


What’s the latest on DLE technology to extract the lithium and return the brine to the stream–avoiding the environmental concerns? Several companies are experimenting with the technology on small scale but so far reports have been not ready to invest.

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is one of the owners of the geothermal wells, but so far has reported problems with lithium recovery technology.

There are reports that California has enacted a tax on lithium recovered. That is discouraging some of the initial enthusiasm.

At present battery grade lithium is made only in China by processing the crude lithium obtained from the mines. That usually requires water. Where will California lithium processors get this water?

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But recently, the Salton Sea has become a hotbed of industrial activity filled with promise for the future. Beneath its shores lie untouched lithium deposits that experts believe could play a role in the world’s clean energy future.

With the rising demand for lithium during the clean energy transition, the area—also known as “Lithium Valley”—has become an attractive location for major energy companies to explore advanced mining techniques like direct lithium extraction (DLE). Through DLE, companies can directly capture lithium from brine deposits using a special “lithium filter,” bypassing the traditional, resource-intensive open-pit mining and evaporation pond processes.

Companies with billionaire backing are buying in, with the likes of Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and others betting big on the idea. In August 2023, automaker Stellantis, Jeep’s parent company, announced that it would invest $100 million in one of the DLE projects. The U.S. Department of Energy also granted close to $11 million for the technology. Companies and some researchers say that the technologies can minimize the environmental impact of lithium mining commonly associated with conventional mining practices.


Although DLE gets lots of attention for its lesser environmental impact so far no one has reported a successful operating plant. Berkshire Hathaway has geothermal operations in the area and wants to extract lithium from the brine. Reports say they had difficulty with brine solidifying during processing causing delays. I have seen no recent progress reports.

Several processes are in trials but for now they are still working out the details.

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