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Lithium production could save California's Salton Sea

The lithium brine reserves under the Salton Sea could support the entire US EV industry for years.

California's Salton Sea could soon have a reputation for more than toxic water and economic collapse.

Kyle Hyatt/Roadshow

The Salton Sea was created by accident around a century ago, and today it's mostly known as a place to take questionably edgy photographs of decaying buildings and fish skeletons (and as an underappreciated Val Kilmer film). Still, back in the 1950s and '60s, it was going to be the biggest thing in outdoor recreation and vacationing, but because of geography and agriculture, it quickly became a major environmental embarrassment for the Golden State.

Now though, according to a report Monday by Automotive News, thanks to the boom in electric vehicle production and that industry's hunger for rare earth minerals like lithium, there could be a new, useful future for California's most misfit body of water.

Right now, the vast majority of lithium used in American-made electric vehicles comes from elsewhere in the world -- places like South America, Australia and China -- with only a single large-scale lithium mine operating in the US, in Nevada. This reliance on foreign resources for EV battery pack production is less than ideal, and folks are looking for another answer. This answer could come in the form of massive lithium deposits located in geothermal pockets under the Salton Sea.

These pockets have been known for some time, but previously, low lithium prices made the process of extracting them, and the construction of all the facilities and equipment to make that extraction possible, not really worth it financially. But now, lithium prices are surging upward of 400% in a single year, and that trend looks likely to continue, so GM and its partner Controlled Thermal Resources are taking the proverbial plunge, which is something that we've known about for a few months.

The extraction process has the added benefit of being nearly carbon-neutral and generally having a nearly net-zero impact on the environment. This is done by extracting the lithium brine from superhot underground pockets of brine found at depths of as much as 8,000 feet -- seriously, it comes out of the ground at temperatures in excess of 600 degrees Fahrenheit -- and using that steam to power turbines that generate electricity. After the steam is used, the concentrated hot brine leftover is subjected to an ion exchange process that extracts the lithium salts from the brine, and those get turned into lithium hydroxide. The remaining water gets pumped back into the ground. It's pretty brilliant, overall.

Where things start to get especially interesting is in the possible benefits that the added tax income and development money that this new lithium extraction process (as well as its attached geothermal power generation process) can bring in.

I talked about the Salton Sea being an environmental disaster, and that's both true and not true. It's more of a disaster waiting to happen. The Sea was formed in 1905 by a particularly robust flood of the Colorado River, and because there is no natural outlet for its water, the Salton Sea acts as a kind of repository for whatever gets tossed in there, most notably agricultural runoff with its attendant pesticides and fertilizers.

As long as those chemicals are kept covered with water and contained in the lakebed, they're mostly not an issue except for wildlife and the few local residents that remain. The problem comes when the lake recedes, and that lakebed gets exposed as playa. Playa is ultrafine silt that is easily picked up and carried by the wind, and the playa from the Salton Sea is filled with poisons.

The Salton Sea has been kept from totally drying up by importing water from other sources -- remember, it's not fed externally by any rivers or streams -- which is extremely expensive, but the added tax revenue could help pay for them. There are also talks of battery manufacturers setting up plants on already dried-out portions of the lakebed, which will help cover some of the toxic playa and reduce its spread.

There could be other benefits to the possible influx of industry to the area, being its effect on the population there. The area surrounding the Sea is barren and desolate and remains one of the poorest areas in California. Bringing industry -- and therefore jobs -- to the region has the potential to dramatically transform it for the better. Controlled Thermal Resources plans to create around 1,400 jobs for its Phase 1 and Phase 2 projects alone.

Controlled Thermal Resources announced on Nov. 15 that it was starting the drilling process for its first combined lithium and power generation plant. The power side of the facility is expected to generate 50 megawatts of electricity, while the lithium side of the plant will produce around 20,000 tons of lithium per year once it's up and running.

While all of this is still in the early stages of happening, it is incredibly exciting and important, and we're genuinely excited to see it progress.

We reached out to Controlled Thermal Resources for comment but didn't hear back in time for publication.

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