Massive Lithium Deposit at California’s Salton Sea Could Power Millions of Electric Vehicles Each Year: Study

Massive Lithium Deposit at California’s Salton Sea Could Power Millions of Electric Vehicles Each Year: Study

The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (bottom), stands near the Salton Sea near Borrego Springs, Calif., on March 23, 2022. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Jill McLaughlin

Jill McLaughlin

12/14/2023

Updated: 12/30/2023

The Salton Sea in Southern California could produce enough lithium to power millions of electric vehicles each year, scientists said.
About an hour’s drive south of Palm Springs, the shallow, briny lake—dubbed “Lithium Valley”—contains enough of the battery mineral to help meet the growing national demand for electric batteries in cars, phones, and other devices.
“It’s among the largest brine deposits of lithium in the world,” Michael McKibben, a geochemist at the University of California–Riverside and co-author of a study of the lake, told The Epoch Times. “Once they reach maximum production, they could be producing enough lithium for 10 million electric vehicles per year.”
The entire lake contains enough lithium to power an estimated 375 million electric vehicles in total, researchers say.
Extracting the mineral would also be far cheaper and less damaging to the environment than mining it, according to the study published on Nov. 22, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, and produced by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Mr. McKibben estimates the lake contains 4 to 18 million metric tons of lithium carbonate.
Once production is up and running—which could be in the next four to six years—the United States would be able to supply its own lithium instead of importing batteries from China and other Asian countries.
“It behooves us to develop our own lithium resources and bring that supply chain home to the United States,” Mr. McKibben said.
More importantly, he added, the Salton Sea is in Imperial County, California’s poorest region. Producing the lithium, and manufacturing or recycling batteries, would create employment opportunities for the community.
“It would be a real boon for that area, in terms of jobs,” he added.
Mr. McKibben joined about 30 other scientists from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, the University of California’s Riverside and Davis campuses, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and New Zealand to study the Salton Sea’s lithium potential over the past year.

Testing in Progress

Three companies are developing lithium extraction projects at the lake: Berkshire Hathaway Energy (BHE) Renewables, Controlled Thermal Resources, and EnergySource Minerals.
EnergySource Minerals testing shows the company can extract about 90 percent of the lithium available in the brine, according to Mr. McKibben.
Warren Buffett’s BHE Renewables is focused on two demonstration projects in the Salton Sea and, pending a successful outcome, construction of the first commercial plant could begin as soon as next year, according to the company’s website.
Realistically, however, large-scale lithium production at the Salton Sea won’t start until 2028 to 2030, Mr. McKibben estimates.
A Controlled Thermal Resources drilling rig is seen in Calipatria, Calif., on Dec. 15, 2021. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

A Controlled Thermal Resources drilling rig is seen in Calipatria, Calif., on Dec. 15, 2021. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Lithium mining has also started in Nevada this year. The Thacker Pass project in northern Nevada broke ground in March, promising to become the nation’s largest lithium mine. The mineral is dug out of the ground, ground up, roasted, and soaked in sulfuric acid, similar to how it’s extracted in Australia’s hard-rock mines.
Another process in South America uses large evaporation ponds that allow the sun to evaporate lake water to extract lithium. However, the process causes groundwater supplies to decrease, which can cause problems in the local communities and among the plants and animals, according to Mr. McKibben.
The lithium produced in Australia and South America is shipped to China or other Asian countries to be used in battery production.
Extracting the mineral from the Salton Sea, called direct lithium extraction, is a relatively new process. Companies would pull the lithium out of the brine and collect it using absorbent materials. The leftover brine would then be re-injected deep underground into the geothermal reservoir.
“In the Salton Sea system, Mother Nature has already put the lithium in the brine for us,” Mr. McKibben said. “She’s already done a lot of the work, so it’s much less environmentally disadvantageous to extract the brine.”
The brine is also being used to create steam for electricity at the lake.

Environmental Concerns

Southern California’s potential lithium boom, however, has some environmentalists concerned.
The organizations Earthworks and Comité Civico del Valle published a study in November that asserts extracting the mineral at commercial scales could potentially impact land, air, water, and public health in the region.
The report identified air-quality degradation from construction and operation of lithium and geothermal facilities, added earthquake risks, possible dust contamination, hazardous waste risks, and the prospect of using a large amount of Colorado River water.
“The people of Imperial Valley have a right to know how this development will impact their health and environment,” said Jared Naimark, Earthworks’ California Mining Organizer and one of the report’s authors, in a statement on Nov. 2.
Another environmental organization, the Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition, said lithium production would add to “environmental racism” in the county.
“In Imperial County, California’s most non-white county, we have textbook examples of environmental racism that contribute to the high levels of legacy pollution and water quality issues we face,” said Daniela Flores, co-founder of Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition, in a Nov. 2 statement. “When our organization talks to residents about lithium development, they always raise ongoing concerns about worsening air pollution.”
The coast of the Salton Sea is seen in Salton City, Calif., on Dec. 16, 2021. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

The coast of the Salton Sea is seen in Salton City, Calif., on Dec. 16, 2021. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

To help counteract other negative environmental effects at the Salton Sea, the Biden-Harris administration has given California $70 million to speed up restoration of the lake, improving conditions for wildlife, water quality, and surrounding communities, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Dec. 8.
The lake has shrunk after years of drought conditions, exposing dry lakebed areas that release fine dust into the air, which affects air quality, according to the governor’s office.
“This major investment continues momentum for the critical work underway to stabilize and restore the Salton Sea for the benefit of Imperial and Coachella Valley communities and wildlife that rely on the Sea,” Mr. Newsom said in a statement.
The money will be used to expand the state’s Species Conservation Habitat Project, which is creating ponds and wetlands over 4,000 acres to provide fish and bird habitats and to suppress dust.
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Jill McLaughlin

Jill McLaughlin

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Jill McLaughlin is an award-winning journalist covering politics, environment, and statewide issues. She has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Oregon, Nevada, and New Mexico. Jill was born in Yosemite National Park and enjoys the majestic outdoors, traveling, golfing, and hiking.

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