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NTWRK is partnering with KNOWN to host a digital art fair

But against this unlikely backdrop, new life – or at least new industry – is setting up shop in the region. The Salton Sea, it turns out, is rich in lithium, an element that has taken center stage in the world’s transition to clean energy and its ever-growing demand for batteries. From smartphones to electric vehicles, there’s a pretty good chance the last battery you used had lithium ions inside. Prices for the metal peaked in September, and futures are up more than 400% since the start of 2021. With Biden’s new economic policies outlined in the Inflation Reduction Act, there are strong financial incentives to bring back battery production move to 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.

Currently, there are three companies seeking to set up plants in the Salton Sea for direct lithium extraction: EnergySource Minerals, Controlled Thermal Resources and BHE Renewables, a branch 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 in the ground to create steam that drives a turbine to produce electricity. What makes the Salton Sea so special is that its geothermal brine happens to contain lithium.

In a 2017 study, researchers from the US DOE 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 significant lithium concentration. This rare coincidence of geothermal activity and lithium presence presents an opportunity for companies to generate electricity and mine lithium simultaneously.

Beyond their marriage of geothermal energy and lithium mining, the three companies are beginning to diverge.

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

“They claim they have the technology patented, they claim they’ve done the research, they claim they have the financing, and they claim they’re ready to go and start production,” Gomez says. “They’re kind of considered the canary in the coal mine.”

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

Construction on the plant was due to start earlier this year, but has been delayed. EnergySource has said publicly that lithium production could begin in the second quarter of 2024, but it is unclear whether this date will also be pushed back. The company has a long history of operations in the region, and has operated the John L. Featherstone geothermal plant since 2012. The new venture into lithium will utilize that same facility, but without more details on how their own technology works, there’s not much to do but wait and see.

One potential problem facing all three lithium mining companies is that the Salton Sea geothermal brine is not the same as the brine in evaporation ponds similar to those in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, where more than half of the world’s lithium is produced. Specifically, the deep geothermal brine in the Salton Sea contains more silica and transition elements, which can complicate the chemistry of purifying the lithium. Still, many researchers are extremely positive about the prospect of utilizing these reserves. Alex Grant, the principal at Jade Cove, a research organization focused on direct lithium extraction technologies, says that much of the skepticism surrounding the technology can be attributed to competing financial interests trying to destroy the nascent technology’s potential in favor of an established method.

Lithium mines in the Atacama Salt Flats, Chile from an altitude of 15 km via Google Earth. The facility is approximately 10 km wide.

Google earth

In turn, BHE Renewables, operating as CalEnergy, operates a fleet of 10 geothermal 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 determine the viability of lithium mining. If that 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.

Clearly, backing Berkshire Hathaway has benefits and capital. Add another $15 million in DoE grant money secured last winter to the equation, and BHE appears well-positioned to be a major player in the long term.

Finally, there are controlled thermal resources. As the only company not already operating a geothermal business in the region, CTR is something of an outsider and dark horse. By 2024, the company hopes to build both a geothermal energy plant and a direct lithium extraction plant to operate in parallel, projecting a capacity to extract 300,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent annually by 2030. As dot.LA previously reported, Controlled Thermal Resources has partnered with Statevolt, a company that plans to build a $4 billion gigafactory nearby that will run on power from CTR’s geothermal plant and make batteries from the lithium it extracts. It’s a beautiful closed-loop business model. But again, this all relies on the direct lithium extraction technology, and details are few.

According to Gomez, despite the typically cut-throat nature of the energy industry, the relationship between the three upstarts in the Salton Sea is often surprisingly close at the moment.

“They want the others to succeed because that kind of gives them the confidence that their technology will eventually succeed as well,” he says. “It gives investors confidence.”

That’s all to say, there could very well be room for all three companies if the technology is as solid as they claim. If so, the Salton Sea and its surrounding region could have another miraculous transformation up their sleeve.

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