Is Califonia’s Salton Sea the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium”?

February 28, 2022

Climate deniers and delayers like to wring their hands in bogus concern about impacts from minerals needed to complete the energy transition. Favorite bogieman is Lithium.
FWIW, we now mine literally 100,000 times more coal than we do Lithium – and that’s not including the gazillions of tons of additional overburden from mountain tops removed and prairie soils stripped bare.
Even with the ramp-up expected with adoption of EVs, Lithium extraction will remain orders of magnitude below what we are currently exploiting for fossil fuels. (I haven’t even mentioned oil, gas, and fracking)

And a new type of extraction process could do it all without least in one corner of the southwest desert..

Utility Dive:

As the U.S. looks to boost production of EVs and install energy storage systems necessary to supplement the growth in renewable energy production, the supply chain for critical minerals has emerged as a potential hangup. A May 2021 report from the International Energy Agency detailed a “looming mismatch” between climate ambitions and critical mineral availability, with a predicted 4,000% increase in demand for lithium by 2040 if worldwide climate goals are met. According to a White House report, China controls 60% of the world’s lithium production, leading the Biden administration to focus on new lithium production and materials processing as part of its clean energy push

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has said his state holds “what some have described as the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” referring to the oil giant. Touting those resources as a crucial component of the state’s transportation electrification goals, Newsom has proposed $350 million in tax credits and regulatory streamlining for lithium businesses as part of a broader clean energy budget package. The state has also formed a Lithium Valley Commission to review opportunities and benefits for extracting lithium from geothermal brine, with a report due to the state legislature by October. 

“The Salton Sea geothermal system is the primary potential geothermal resource for lithium in the United States, and it’s a world-class resource,” Pat Dobson, Berkeley Lab geothermal systems program lead, said in a Berkeley Lab report. He added that “there is a wide range of estimates in terms of the size of the resource,” as well as uncertainty about where it comes from, how it might decline over time and how it is best extracted. 

There are 11 commercial geothermal energy plants in the Salton Sea, pumping hot fluids from deep underground and converting that heat into electricity. While that fluid is typically reinjected underground, there is potential to extract lithium from it after it has been cooled, taking advantage of the clean energy resource. Already, several companies have started pilot extraction projects

The research project will lean on data from those pilot projects and other field data to better calculate the chemistry of the brine and how it is resupplied to geothermal fields. A better idea of that lithium supply and how it exists in the brine would offer an alternative to the open pit mining or salt lake extraction that supplies most of the world’s lithium. However, Dobson said, the study will also work to quantify the water and chemical usage needed, the air quality impacts and any seismic effects. 

“We think geothermal lithium is one of the least environmentally impactful ways of obtaining lithium,” Dobson said in the report. “We want to understand how to mitigate any environmental side effects to make it even more benign.”


General Motors Co (GM.N) is investing in a U.S. lithium project that could become the country’s largest by 2024, making the automaker one of the first to develop its own source of a battery metal crucial for the electrification of cars and trucks.

The deal, announced on Friday, comes as automakers around the world scramble for access to lithium and other electric vehicle (EV) metals as internal combustion engines are phased out.

Detroit-based GM said it will make a “multimillion-dollar investment” in and help develop Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR) Ltd’s Hell’s Kitchen geothermal brine project near California’s Salton Sea, roughly 160 miles (258 km) southeast of Los Angeles.

“This will supply a sizeable amount of our lithium needs,” said Tim Grewe, GM’s director of electrification strategy.

The company declined to be more specific on its investment amount, but said the project’s lithium will be used to build EVs in the United States and that GM engineers and scientists will visit the site once pandemic-related travel restrictions end.

While other automakers, including China’s Great Wall Motor Co (601633.SS)and BYD (002594.SZ), have invested in lithium producers before, none appear to have taken such an aggressive step to be part of the production process, as GM is taking with CTR.

The move could spark other automakers to follow suit with similar partnerships, especially as demand for the metal is expected to outstrip supply by 20% within four years, according to industry consultant Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

2 Responses to “Is Califonia’s Salton Sea the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium”?”

  1. J4Zonian Says:

    “China controls 60% of the world’s lithium production”

    In the context, of talking about production as mining, this is a bit misleading. China is 3rd in current mining with 16% of the world’s production, and 4th in known, economically recoverable reserves. A lot of the lithium it processes comes from Australia and other countries.

    By my calculations world oil production is 460,000 times lithium production by weight. Can’t think of any meaningful comparison to gas.

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Personally, I’m still cantankerously waiting for the first large-scale non-lithium grid battery to go online. The practice of wasting all of that energy-dense lithium battery tech on slabs makes me grumpy.

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