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Will California’s Salton Sea Become the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium”?

Salton Sea, California
Scientists are eager to explore what they call “Lithium Valley.” The Salton Sea, a lake formed from Colorado River floodwater, is key to understanding the Valley. Credit: Marc Cooper/Public Domain

The now-highly polluted Salton Sea, in California, could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” experts say due to its high concentration of the metal.

Global demand for lithium batteries is set to jump five-fold by 2030, and the world could face a shortage of “white gold” as soon as 2025.

The California Energy Commission calls it “Lithium Valley,” and projected in 2020 that it could supply an estimated 600,000 tons per year with a value of $7.2 billion.

But extracting it, processing it, and turning it into batteries to store renewable energy and power electric vehicles is another question entirely.

The lake was formed in 1905, as floodwaters spilled from the Colorado River into an irrigation canal that made its way to the Salton Sink, a large natural basin.

The accidental swimming hole became a tourist destination in the years that followed, but the air there is now poisonous. And the water is exceptionally foul because chemicals from farms settled into the salt bed and got into the water, with desert winds making the situation much worse.

Study looks at lithium in California’s Salton Sea

A group of scientists from the University of California, Riverside, and Geologica Geothermal Group is now researching a massive geothermal reservoir around and beneath the lake.

Hot, salty water known as “geothermal brine” lies in the reservoir, which is pumped from thousands of feet below the ground. In this process, it is converted to a gas that turns a turbine, which generates massive amounts of electricity.

As an added benefit, the pumping process also brings up lithium, which can be used in batteries for electric cars. For many years, after the liquid cooled, it was pumped back into the ground, but scientists are now taking a long look at extracting the lithium first.

The Salton Sea project is sponsored by the US Department of Energy’s Geothermal Technologies Office. In the plans, which were described as the first detailed investigation to map out California’s so-called “Lithium Valley,” Berkeley Lab announced that the Geothermal Technologies Office had funded its research to the tune of $1.2 million, on February 16.

“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.”

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

“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,” the Geothermal Technologies Office said.

California could be the “Saudi Arabia of lithium”

The scientists say the geothermal field hidden under Salton Sea, California has the potential to contain enough lithium to meet all the lithium requirements of the US, with possible exportation of leftover lithium.

In 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom dubbed the state the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” establishing the Lithium Valley Commission to investigate and report the possibilities of the valley. Michael McKibben, a research professor at the University of California, Riverside, 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,” says McKibben in an interview with Interesting Engineering.

“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.”

Lithium is important for electric vehicles

Interest in electric vehicles is undeniably increasing. Electric vehicles will likely replace gasoline-powered cars in the coming decades, so this project is vital for the industry.

Despite evidence suggesting lithium mining may be environmentally harmful, electric vehicles — and lithium — are part of any credible plan to tackle climate change.

Lithium-ion batteries are used to charge electric vehicles and to power many of our consumer electronics.

The lithium reserve in the Salton Sea could be a breakthrough for the industry, giving it the potential to ramp up due to the vast amount of lithium extracted from beneath this most unusual inland lake in California.

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