Where Is There More Lithium to Power Cars and Phones? Beneath a California Lake.

Lithium-ion batteries are the most common type of battery powering our current devices. The vast majority of these lithium-ion cars and phones come from a single mine in Bolivia, but this may be changing soon with reports that car makers have found more than enough lithium to power their electric vehicles coming out of California lakes alone.

The “california lake dried up” is a story about how the California’s water supply has been depleted. The story discusses how there is more lithium to power cars and phones than any other place in the world.

CALIPATRIA (California) — One large undiscovered deposit of lithium, a crucial component of the batteries that power electric cars and smartphones, may be boiling under a massive lake in Southern California.

The United States now imports virtually all of its lithium, although research indicates that there are huge quantities in subsurface geothermal brines—a scorching hot soup of minerals, metals, and saltwater—in the United States. The hitch is that extracting lithium from such a source on a commercial scale has never been done before.

Three firms, including one controlled by Warren Buffett’s conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc., are pressing forward with plans to accomplish precisely that in California’s Salton Sea. Governments keen to ensure supply of crucial minerals, which are essential to various contemporary technologies, are funding these initiatives. Lithium prices have lately risen at their quickest rate in years, owing to supply-chain constraints and increased demand from electric-vehicle manufacturers such as Tesla Inc. TSLA 3.61 percent.

The plans have the potential to make this part of California into one of the greatest producers of “white gold,” which is now sourced mostly from Australia, Chile, and China. According to estimations from the California Energy Commission, the geothermal reservoir under the Salton Sea region is capable of generating 600,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate each year. That amount of output would be higher than the previous year’s worldwide output.

Thousands of jobs might be created as a result of this lithium drive in a region that desperately needs them. The lake is located in Imperial County, which has a population of 180,000 people and is reliant on a volatile and low-wage agricultural business. In December, the unemployment rate was 14.7 percent, compared to 6.5 percent for the state. The county has the fourth-highest poverty rate among California’s 58 counties, at 20%.

“If it is what we hope,” Imperial County Supervisor Ryan Kelley said, “it will elevate this whole valley off of what we have been dealing with.”

The superheated geothermal water deep under a vast region that encompasses the Salton Sea has the key to freeing all that lithium. Several local geothermal facilities have been extracting the water for decades in order to generate power. Some of the same businesses are now attempting to extract the dissolved lithium found in geothermal brine.

The California Energy Commission started offering funding to assist enhance lithium extraction technologies in 2017, which sparked an initial push. Berkshire Hathaway Energy got $6 million to undertake experiments at one of its ten geothermal units. Officials from Berkshire Hathaway refused to comment.

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The geothermal power plant of EnergySource. By the end of June, the business aims to break ground on a lithium factory.

EnergySource Minerals, which received a $2.5 million award for being the first to declare progress in creating a commercial product at a plant about 10 miles north of Calipatria, was another beneficiary. The San Diego-based energy firm said it expects to break ground on a lithium factory by the end of June, with plans to begin operations in 2024, and that it would employ over 70 full-time personnel and another 120 for support services.

Clouds of steam billowed into the azure desert sky over EnergySource Minerals’ geothermal brine plant near the Salton Sea on a recent day. Lithium chloride is extracted by a proprietary procedure and put in a white plastic bucket at the pilot plant, where saline water travels through a succession of small processing stations. According to Derek Benson, EnergySource’s chief operating officer, the brine is heated to 500 degrees and pumped up via producing wells at a rate of 6,000 to 7,000 gallons per minute.

Mr. Benson said, “It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s certainly executing the crucial portion of the process.”

It takes a long time and a lot of money to convert lithium into battery-grade compounds. Lithium is now mostly mined in Australia and China using classic hard rock mining methods, in which the rocks are crushed and the material removed. Brines are pumped out of the earth in South America and then allowed to evaporate, leaving the mineral behind to be collected.

Miners often dig thousands of feet down into the soil to bring naturally-existing brines to the surface to access geothermal lithium directly, as operators intend to accomplish in Southern California. Chemical processes are utilized to extract lithium from a complicated mineral-rich slurry that may reach temperatures of 300 degrees Celsius.

Aside from offering an extra supply of a sought-after product, proponents claim the procedure is less harmful to the environment than previous approaches. Traditional brine collection, for example, requires evaporating vast volumes of water, which is frequently diverted from local populations, according to opponents. The heat from these brines may be utilized to operate a turbine that creates energy, while geothermal production extracts lithium from water that is then returned to the earth.

Operators confront a variety of difficulties. One factor is the possibility of local resistance. Members of the Barona band of Mission Indians and other tribes protested potential lithium activities in adjacent Arizona, as well as the Salton Sea, last September. One of their fears is that if a spring on ancient grounds is injured while drilling, the extraction would dry it up.

Bobby Wallace, a Barona activist, remarked, “Who knows what’s actually down there?” “They may be able to tap into an east-west water supply.” Because the geothermal drilling is so deep, Michael McKibben, associate professor emeritus of geology at the University of California, Riverside, believes surface water will be unaffected.

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By the Salton Sea, a view of one of Berkshire Hathaway’s geothermal power facilities.

Moving from tiny demonstration projects to commercial extraction levels is another significant challenge for local lithium producers. It’s impossible to estimate how expensive such initiatives may be. “The firms must determine how much brine can be mined, at what pace and lithium quality, and for how long, as well as how much of the lithium content can be recovered,” said Liberum analyst Yuen Low.

For miners in other areas, the adjustment has been difficult. Several miners have successfully explored the use of high temperatures and sulfuric acid to leach nickel from ores in recent decades, but they have run into challenges when trying to scale up to commercial size.

“Geothermal lithium would go a long way toward meeting the demands of the United States,” said Patrick Dobson, who directs a geothermal research program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which undertakes research for the Energy Department. “However, it has yet to be tried, and we will find out if it works in the next years.”

The Salton Sea, which was created by floods in 1905 and became a popular tourist attraction, has been in decline over the last half-century. According to experts, runoff from nearby agricultural activities contaminated it with fertilizer and pesticides, while a lack of natural water and significant evaporation increased its salinity to more than twice that of the ocean, rendering it fatal to most species. It also produced a harsh sulfur odor on occasion.

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The proprietor of Calipatria Inn and Suites, Dipak Patel, voiced skepticism about whether the search for lithium would help things improve. ‘Right now, I don’t see anything nice.’

The local economy was based on agriculture, and settlements around the lake began to collapse as the area was thrown into turmoil by events such as the move of big tomato operations to Mexico. The 3,000 convicts of Calipatria State Prison, another important employment, add to the town’s population of 7,400.

Standing behind the front desk of his near empty Calipatria Inn & Suites on a recent day, manager Dipak Patel expressed doubt that lithium would turn things around. “I don’t see anything good right now,” Mr. Patel said.

Imperial County has been the target of several failed economic development programs. Speculators flocked to the area in the early 2000s, looking for zinc riches under the lake. According to Mr. Kelley, the Imperial County supervisor, zinc prices plummeted, putting a halt to the search. Solar plants have also grown in this area, but they have created few long-term employment while displacing precious farmland, according to the county supervisor.

Mr. Kelley said, “We’ve been left behind.”

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On Dec. 15, a worker at the lithium and power plant of Controlled Thermal Resources in Calipatria.

Bing Guan/Bloomberg News photo

As the demand for lithium grows, California faces stiff competition from other geothermal lithium projects throughout the globe. According to Bank of America, demand would grow at a 28 percent annual rate until 2025, with 14 geothermal lithium projects in China, Australia, Germany, and North America having progressed beyond the discovery stage. Vulcan Energy Resource, based in Australia, said its geothermal lithium factory in Germany has already sold out the first five to six years of projected output, citing agreements with carmakers Volkswagen AG and Renault SA, as well as battery producer LG Energy Solution Ltd.

What happens during the geothermal lithium extraction process?

Where-Is-There-More-Lithium-to-Power-Cars-and-Phones

The turbine is powered by steam, which generates energy.

Lithium is extracted from concentrated brine.

Condensed steam is pumped back into the earth.

Under its own pressure, geothermal brine is brought to the surface.

The rest of the brine and steam is pumped back into the earth.

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Under its own pressure, geothermal brine is brought to the surface.

The turbine is powered by steam, which generates energy.

Condensed steam is pumped back into the earth.

Lithium is extracted from concentrated brine.

The rest of the brine and steam is pumped back into the earth.

1644089832_644_Where-Is-There-More-Lithium-to-Power-Cars-and-Phones

Under its own pressure, geothermal brine is brought to the surface.

The turbine is powered by steam, which generates energy.

Condensed steam is pumped back into the earth.

Lithium is extracted from concentrated brine.

The rest of the brine and steam is pumped back into the earth.

Vulcan’s Rhine Valley pilot facility isn’t anticipated to go into full production until 2024. EnergySource is aiming for the same year in California. Controlled Thermal Resources Ltd., which has sunk two wells more than 8,000 feet deep and thinks it could produce 300,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate per year while supplying enough energy to power 1 million households, is another company that is interested. GM made a multimillion-dollar investment in CTR in July in exchange for first rights to the miner’s future lithium output.

The geothermal reservoir near the Salton Sea is exceptionally salty and rich in magnesium, zinc, silicon, and other minerals, which presents a challenge for CTR and others. This makes separating the lithium more difficult.

Rod Colwell, CEO of Controlled Thermal Resources, remarked, “There are rotten apples in the barrel, and you have to get rid of them.”

The other minerals, such as silicon and zinc, will be separated and sold by CTR. According to Mr. Colwell, the project aims to produce 1,880 direct employment and 2,500 indirect jobs. Mr. Benson said, “We want to employ as much local talent as possible.”

Analysts believe it will be obvious in a few years if geothermal brines can be a substantial source of lithium.

“The jury is out, but they’re pushing the jury into the jury box right now,” said Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory specialist William Stringfellow.

Alistair MacDonald and Jim Carlton may be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively.

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On Jan. 25, a sunset view from the Calipatria Inn & Suites.

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The “salton sea 1950s” is a lake in California. The lake has been polluted and the water is not safe to drink from. However, beneath the surface of the lake, there is a large amount of lithium that can be used to power cars and phones.

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