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Can California be the Saudi Arabia of lithium?

There may be a lithium treasure beneath the highly polluted Salton Sea.

Can California be the Saudi Arabia of lithium?
Salton Sea Wikimedia Commons

Just thirty miles or so south of Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California rests the Salton Sea. Located in the middle of the desert, the infamously polluted lake was formed in 1905 when floodwater spilled from the Colorado River into an irrigation canal and made its way to the Salton Sink, a large basin where the water still sits today. The accidental swimming hole became a tourist destination in the years that followed, but today, the air is poisonous, and the water is exceptionally foul because chemicals from farms settled into the salt bed and got into the water. Choking dust from the swirling desert winds doesn't help, either.

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But there might be some good to come from underneath this artificial monstrosity.

A group of scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at UC Riverside and Geologica Geothermal Group is researching a massive geothermal reservoir around and beneath the lake. 

The hot salty water in the reservoir is known as "geothermal brine," and when it's pumped from thousands of feet below the Earth, it is converted to a gas that turns a turbine that generates massive amounts of electricity. That process is exactly what's happening at 11 geothermal energy plants in the area right now. There's an added benefit, though: This pumping process brings up lithium, the elemental metal that can be used in batteries for electric cars. For years, the liquid was pumped right back into the ground after it cooled, but now scientists are taking a long look at extracting the lithium from it first.

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The hot brine that comes up from the subsurface as part of geothermal power production at the Salton Sea in California is a rich stew of minerals, including iron, magnesium, calcium, sodium, and lithium. Using various extraction techniques, lithium chloride can be extracted from the brine, then processed into other forms for battery production.
The hot brine that comes up from the subsurface as part of geothermal power production at the Salton Sea in California is a rich stew of minerals, including iron, magnesium, calcium, sodium, and lithium. Using various extraction techniques, lithium chloride can be extracted from the brine, then processed into other forms for battery production. (Jenny Nuss/Berkeley Lab)

"In repurposing the extracted fluids already used for electricity production as a lithium source, we can put domestic lithium onto the market while producing electricity simultaneously, all with a minimal environmental footprint," reads an October 2021 memo from the Geothermal Technologies Office from the US Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

The project is sponsored by the US Department of Energy (DOE) 's Geothermal Technologies Office. This project is the first detailed investigation to map out California's so-called "Lithium Valley." On February 16, 2022, the Berkeley Lab announced that the Geothermal Technologies Office funded its research to the tune of $1.2 million.

One of the many purposes of the investigation is determining the amount of lithium in the field. The team is also planning to examine the possible environmental impacts to determine how much water and chemical are needed to extract lithium.

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"The Salton Sea geothermal system is the primary potential geothermal resource for lithium in the United States, and it's a world-class resource," says Pat Dobson, the Berkeley Lab scientist and the leader of the project. "But there is a wide range of estimates in terms of the size of the resource, and also not a great understanding of where the lithium comes from, the rate at which it would decline over time with the extraction of lithium from the geothermal brine, and whether it would be replenished by the remaining lithium in the host rocks."

"Saudi Arabia of lithium"

According to the scientists, the geothermal field hidden under the Salton Sea has the potential to contain enough lithium to meet all the lithium requirements of the US. Moreover, the leftovers can even be exported.

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California Governor Gavin Newsom has dubbed the state the "Saudi Arabia of lithium," and established the Lithium Valley Commission last year to investigate and report the possibilities of the valley. A research professor at the University of California, Riverside, Michael McKibben, who has been studying the Salton Sea geothermal field since the 1970s, also agrees with the potential. 

"If you do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, you can convince yourself there's somewhere between 1 and 6 million metric tons of lithium in that field," McKibben says. "That would be the largest brine source of lithium in the world, bigger than any individual South American salar deposit. So, it's a big number, and it means the potential is there for – again, back-of-the-envelope calculations – something like 50 to 100 years' worth of lithium production."

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Why is lithium so important for EVs?

It's an undeniable fact that the interest in electric vehicles is increasing. It can even be said they are starting to replace gasoline vehicles. Therefore, this research project is vital for the electric vehicle industry. The cleanness of lithium mining may be a disputable topic. Still, if we use lithium-ion batteries for charging electric vehicles, the lithium reserve in the Salton sea will be an essential breakthrough.

The research has enormous potential because the electric vehicle industry could ramp up thanks to the vast amount of lithium extracted from beneath the Salton Sea.

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