California may have just hit a green energy jackpot after an analysis showed massive lithium resources in the Salton Sea region.
In a recent report led by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), it was found that the Salton Sea region may hold more than 3,400 kilotons of lithium.
This is enough to support over 375 million batteries for electric vehicles (EV) which is more than the total number of vehicles currently on American roads.
The total dissolved lithium content in the portion of the Salton Sea Geothermal Reservoir was estimated to be at 4.1 million metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalents (LCE). The estimated total resource would increase to 18 million metric tons of LCE if assumptions for porosity and total reservoir size are increased.
Analysts measured lithium concentrations in the reservoir rocks, which were shown to vary with depth and mineralogy.
The Salton Sea is a shallow, highly saline body of water located in the southern end of California. It hosts the Known Geothermal Resource Area (KGRA) which has around 400 megawatts (MW) of geothermal electricity generation capacity and is estimated to have the potential for up to 2,950 MW.
The analysis findings are based on the ability to access the geothermal reservoir for electricity production and the ability to fully extract the lithium from geothermal brines.
“Lithium is vital to decarbonizing the economy and meeting President Biden’s goals of 50 per cent electric vehicle adoption by 2030,” Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Deputy Assistant Secretary Jeff Marootian said.
“This report confirms the once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a domestic lithium industry at home while also expanding clean, flexible electricity generation,” he added. “Using American innovation, we can lead the clean energy future, create jobs and a strong domestic supply chain, and boost our national energy security.”
The U.S. imports most of its lithium and has limited capabilities to extract, refine and produce it.
However, in recent months more discoveries of rich lithium deposits have been found which have prompted investments and research on how to extract it and refine it to stop relying on international sources.
Lithium extraction in the Salton Sea may come with challenges
The positive resource results come with challenges such as geothermal energy costs and other technical difficulties during the lithium extraction process. The diminishing water levels of the Salton Sea have also raised concerns about its shrinking size and the consequential triggering of toxic dust storms, which adversely affect local communities.
The area already produces geothermal electricity and some experts say lithium extraction could be a relatively eco-friendly process.
Companies are already lining up to extract the metal including San Diego-based Energy Source LLC and the Australian start-up Controlled Thermal Resources. Berkshire Hathaway Energy, owned by Warren Buffet, also wants to develop extraction techniques in the region.
For years, the three companies have been exploring ways to extract lithium in eco-friendly and resource-efficient ways. Their commercial production timelines, however, keep on being pushed back.
The Salton Sea analysis was funded by the Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO) and is a component of the DOE’s comprehensive efforts to explore lithium extraction from geothermal brines.
This study is just one facet of the DOE’s broader investment strategy in critical materials. The strategy includes the establishment of the Critical Materials Collaborative to fortify domestic supply chains for critical materials and enhance domestic battery manufacturing capabilities.