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Virtual lithium mine attaches to geothermal plant

Simbol Materials opens an operation in California to extract lithium, zinc, and other metals for batteries from the discharge of geothermal plants.

Simbol Materials today started operations at a plant in California that extracts lithium and other battery materials without having to dig new holes in the ground.

The company has developed a way for getting valuable metals from the discharge brine of geothermal plants, a process that could help make the U.S. a much larger producer of lithium and other important metals. Its operation, which it expects to expand next year, is in the Imperial Valley of California.

A schematic drawing of how Simbol Materials' equipment attaches to an existing geothermal plant. Simbol Materials

Rather than drill wells or mine for minerals, Simbol Materials' process separates lithium carbonate, zinc, and manganese from the brine brought up from a geothermal well. A geothermal plant generates electricity by using underground heat to make steam, which is pushed through a turbine that turns an electricity generator.

Simbol Materials' equipment fits onto an existing geothermal well to siphon off the steam brine and then separate minerals. It nearly eliminates the typical wastewater from a geothermal plant, according to the company.

Finding sources for important minerals has become one of the most critical issues for many green technologies. Lithium ion batteries are the technology of choice for plug-in electric vehicles, making the question of supply important to auto and battery manufacturers.

Typical lithium carbonate production involves pumping brine from underground and then drying it in open ponds for months. There are a couple of lithium producers in the U.S., but the largest reserves are in China, Australia, and South America.

With its process and plant in California, Simbol Materials is now a "competitive producer of high-purity lithium and other lithium compounds and derivatives that are critical to electric vehicle batteries and clean energy," Takashi Sunada, of the Chemicals Division of Japanese conglomerate Itochu, said in a statement.

Sales of materials will be done by Itochu, which is a lead investor in Simbol Materials. Silicon Valley venture firm Mohr Davidow is also an investor.

Updated at 11:00 a.m. to correct minerals extracted.