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.