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But against this unlikely backdrop, new life – or at least new industry – is trying to set up shop in the region. The Salton Sea has proven to be rich in lithium, an element that has become central to the world’s clean energy transition and its ever-growing demand for batteries. From smartphones to electric vehicles, there’s a pretty good chance that the last battery you used had lithium ions inside. Metal prices hit an all-time high in September, and futures are up more than 400% since the start of 2021. With Biden’s new economic policies outlined in the Deflation Act, there are strong financial incentives to move battery manufacturing back north. America.

If that happens, the Salton Sea could very well become the lithium capital of North America, or to paraphrase Governor Gavin Newsom, the region could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” and the players are already starting to gather.

There are currently three companies trying to build plants in the Salton Sea for direct lithium mining: EnergySource Minerals, Controlled Thermal Resources and BHE Renewables, an affiliate of Berkshire Hathaway. All three companies have similar high-level business strategies, all involving geothermal power plants. Common in many parts of the world, these plants draw hot, salty water from deep within the earth and create steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity. The Salton Sea is so special that its geothermal brines happen to contain lithium.

In a 2017 study, researchers from the US DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy analyzed more than 2,000 samples of geothermal fluid from US sources and found that only 1% had a significant concentration of lithium. This rare confluence of geothermal activity and the presence of lithium provides an opportunity for companies to generate electricity and mine lithium at the same time.

Beyond combining geothermal energy and lithium mining, the three companies are beginning to diverge.

According to former dot.LA engagement editor Luis Gomez—whose Lithium Valle newsletter is essential reading on the topic—EnergySource appears to be an early frontrunner.

“They say they have the technology that’s patented, they say they’ve done the research, they say they have the funding, and they say they’re ready to go into production,” Gomez says. “They’re kind of seen as canaries in the coal mine.”

According to a report from the United States Department of Energy, EnergySource plans to eventually increase production to more than 20,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide per year using its proprietary integrated lithium desorption technology.

The construction of the power plant was supposed to start at the beginning of this year, but there were delays. EnergySource has said publicly that lithium production could begin in the second quarter of 2024, but it’s unclear if that date will also be pushed back. The company has a long history of operations in the region, operating the John L. Featherstone Geothermal Power Plant since 2012. The new lithium venture would use the same power plant, but without more details on how their proprietary technology works, there’s not much to go on. do but wait and see.

One potential problem facing all three lithium mining companies is that the geothermal brine in the Salton Sea is not the same as the brine in evaporation reservoirs similar to those in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, where more than half of the world’s lithium is produced. Specifically, the deep geothermal brines in the Salton Sea contain more silica and transition elements, which can complicate lithium purification chemistry. Nevertheless, many researchers are extremely optimistic about the prospect of exploiting these reserves. Alex Grant, director of research organization Jade Cove, which focuses on direct lithium extraction technologies, says much of the skepticism surrounding the technology can be attributed to competing financial interests seeking to squeeze the potential of the emerging technology in favor of the established method. .

Lithium mines in the Atacama Salt Flats in Chile from a height of 15 km via Google Earth. The object is about 10 km wide.

Google Earth

BHE Renewables, operating as CalEnergy, operates a fleet of 10 geothermal power plants in the Imperial Valley. The company previously announced its intention to set up a direct lithium extraction demonstration plant sometime before the end of 2022 to assess the viability of lithium mining. If this pilot program goes well, the company could build a commercial-scale facility as early as 2026 with a projected annual capacity of 90,000 metric tons of lithium.

Obviously, backing Berkshire Hathaway brings benefits and capital. Add to the equation an additional $15 million in DoE grant money received last winter, and BHE appears to be well positioned for the long term.

Finally, there are controlled heat sources. As the only company no longer operating a geothermal business in the region, CTR is something of an outsider and a dark horse. By 2024, the company hopes to build both a geothermal plant and a direct lithium extraction plant operating in parallel, with the projected capacity to mine 300,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent annually by 2030. As previously reported by dot.LA , Controlled Thermal Resources has partnered with Statevolt, which plans to build a $4 billion gigafactory nearby that will run on energy from the CTR geothermal plant and make batteries from the lithium it mines. It’s a beautiful closed business model. But again, this all depends on the direct lithium extraction technology and details are sparse.

According to Gomez, despite the typically stubborn nature of the energy industry, the relationship between the three newcomers to the Salton Sea is often surprisingly cooperative these days.

“They want others to succeed because it gives them confidence that their technology will eventually succeed,” he says. “It gives investors confidence.”

Which means there could be room for all three companies if the technology is as solid as they claim. If that’s the case, the Salton Sea and its surrounding region may have another miraculous transformation up their sleeve.

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