Environment

US finds vast lithium reserves in Salton Sea geothermal reservoir

US vast lithium reserves Salton Sea geothermal reservoir

Photo: CTR/YouTube

Published

January 9, 2024

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Published:

January 9, 2024

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Scientific research results showed the geothermal waters in the Salton Sea area in California contain 3.4 million tons of lithium. It would be enough for over 375 million batteries for electric vehicles – more than the total number of all cars, vans and trucks currently on roads in the United States.

The trend of rising demand for batteries for electric vehicles and devices, households and solar and wind power plants is set to cause a severe deficit in lithium supply in the next decades. The crunch has lately subsided, but the global economy will still require a rise in the production of the alkali metal by several times.

Mining lithium minerals and extracting them by evaporation from salt flats significantly harms the environment and strains water reserves. In addition to emerging technologies like sodium ion batteries, another solution that could ease the expected shortages is extraction from geothermal waters.

Vulcan Energy Resources is working on such projects in Europe, especially in the Upper Rhine Valley in Germany. In the United States, the Department of Energy recently found that the so-called Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area in Imperial County in southern California could contain the biggest reserves of lithium in the country. The Salton Sea is actually a salt lake.

Reserves could amount to as much as 18 million metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent

The study commissioned from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showed there is 3.4 million tons of lithium available, according to the announcement. It would be enough for over 375 million batteries for electric vehicles – more than the total number of all cars, vans and trucks currently on roads in the US, DoE said.

Existing geothermal power plants in the Salton Sea area have a combined 400 MW in capacity, compared to the estimated potential of 2.95 GW

More specifically, the authors of the paper estimated the total dissolved lithium content in the well-characterized portion of the Salton Sea Geothermal Reservoir at 4.1 million metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent.

Moreover, the estimated total resource increases to 18 million metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent if assumptions for porosity and total reservoir size are increased to reflect the probable resource extent, they said. The result is based on the ability to access the entire Salton Sea geothermal reservoir for electricity production and fully extract lithium from resulting geothermal brines.

Combination with geothermal energy production makes lithium extraction more feasible

The area has 400 MW of geothermal electricity generation capacity installed and the potential is estimated at up to 2.95 GW. Berkshire Hathaway Energy owns ten of the 11 existing units. Alongside the companies EnergySource and Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR), it has for years been developing plans to tap lithium as well. CTR is working on its Hell’s Kitchen Lithium and Power project.

The combination with geothermal energy production is much more feasible for lithium extraction. DoE said reaching full potential would enable the US “to meet or exceed global lithium demand for decades.”

Salton Sea ecosystem is in peril even without lithium fever

The Imperial County’s economy is dominated by agriculture, but now some are calling it a lithium valley. Governor of California Gavin Newsom compared it to Saudi Arabia in lithium terms. His administration has imposed a lithium extraction levy of USD 800 per ton.

On the other hand, the region is in a desert and suffers water shortages, prompting concern that lithium projects could make matters worse. The developers claim they would use much more advanced and efficient techniques. Nevertheless, there has been little research on the impact of deploying such technology in Imperial County or elsewhere, environmentalists warned.

In addition, the Salton Sea, California’s biggest lake, is already heavily polluted. Water inflows are weakening and the exposed lakebed is contributing to dust emissions. The federal government recently approved USD 72 million, mostly for species conservation, on top of USD 583 million in state funding committed to date for Salton Sea projects.

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