The Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, has significantly more lithium than previously estimated. Even better, this lithium can be removed without causing the environmental damage typically associated with lithium extraction.
Companies of all sizes have been flocking to the Salton Sea for years, seeking a cost-effective method to extract lithium from the hot fluids beneath its surface. According to the Los Angeles Times, a new analysis by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reveals that there may be up to 18 million metric tons of lithium within the lake.
18 million metric tons of lithium would enable the manufacturing of roughly 382 million EV batteries. With 382 million EV batteries, the United States could electrify every vehicle in the country. The Salton Sea lithium deposit could thus play a crucial role in the fight to curb carbon emissions.
Lithium extraction efforts in other parts of the United States, such as Thacker Pass in Nevada, have faced opposition from conservation activists and Native American tribes. The opposition has been motivated by concerns about environmental damage, water scarcity, and harm to sacred sites.
However, environmental activists are much less concerned about lithium extraction at the Salton Sea.
Conventional lithium extraction methods include open-pit mining and the use of evaporation ponds. The latter method entails pumping lithium-rich brine to the surface and allowing the water to evaporate.
However, these techniques have significant environmental impacts. They require large amounts of land, consume substantial quantities of water, and can result in extensive contamination and waste generation.
By contrast, the Salton Sea can leverage existing geothermal plants to pump lithium-rich brine. Geothermal plants produce zero-carbon energy through steam.
There are over 10 geothermal plants already operational along the Salton Sea, and more are on the way. Earlier this year, Controlled Thermal Resources and Fuji Electric Corp. of America agreed to work together to build up to six new geothermal plants.
It’s important to note that Salton Sea lithium extraction efforts will still face challenges. The corrosive nature of the highly saline underground brine makes equipment maintenance expensive.
Moreover, the estimated 18 million metric tons of lithium is a best-case scenario that heavily relies on new technologies. According to federal researchers, a more feasible estimate is around 4 million metric tons.
Nonetheless, the Salton Sea could play a major role in helping the US to reduce China’s dominance in EV battery manufacturing.
Image Source: Berkeley Lab