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Kaila Gutierrez – Digital Marketing Specialist at Senkox Technologies

May 2024

As lithium continues to be a leading power source of the future, looking inside our Californian borders isn’t a foreign concept. With Lithium now being a much needed mineral in the renewable energy effort taken up by industries worldwide, the Salton Sea is now being looked at as a promising way to source this mineral. The Californian Salton Sea has been used as a resort destination in the past. However, due to the Colorado Rivers mineral deposits making their way to the Salton Sea bed, the area is now chock full of lithium deposits. It’s said that the lake bed has an estimated 18 million metric tons of lithium within its geothermal brine. The Salton Sea bed is estimated to produce a hundred thousand tons of lithium per year with the very real possibility of potentially doubling that amount as production advances. 

How will Lithium be Mined from the Salton Sea?

Due to the area’s corrosive conditions, mining companies are coming up with new ways to extract lithium from the brine with a greener approach in mind. Currently, most of the world’s lithium extraction uses a great amount of water, thus creating toxic waste in the process. To mitigate this concern, geothermal companies are looking into using a newer method called DLE (Direct Lithium Extraction). With this method, it takes advantage of the geothermal energy generation already in place at the Salton Sea. Once the geothermal energy is utilized, the brine is usually put back into the reservoir. But with the D LE method, the extracted brine is intercepted and put through another process by which it extracts lithium through the use of a lithium targeting absorbent. The lithium is then stripped from the absorbent with water, and at its final stage will be purified lithium chloride which can be further processed into a solid product if need be. 

What does this mean for the future of U.S. Lithium production?

Companies involved are planning to build the lithium extraction facility in 2024, with production estimated to start in 2027. Energy Source is expected to process twenty thousand metric tons annually, and automotive providers like Ford are already locked in to buy some of that lithium supply in the coming years. Another company, Hathaway Energy, already operates a large majority of the already in place geothermal plants at the Salton Sea, and as such will likely be the majority in mining the sea of lithium in the near future. The last major player as of right now is Controlled Thermal Resources, which does not own or operate a geothermal plant at the Sea but has begun the first phase in building lithium facilities that will produce an estimated twenty five thousand tons of lithium a year. 

The U.S produces less than 1 percent of the global supply of lithium, but with the Salton Sea mining operations underway, it’s estimated the U.S. will be able to produce around half of current global lithium output. 

Is this safe for the workers and the surrounding community?

Since 1990’s the Salton Sea has decreased by more than thirty percent. Because of this, its ecosystem has been destroyed and the Seas toxic lakebed exposed, which when airborne, spreads toxic dust that causes asthmatic issues to those who breathe it in. The water that makes up the Salton Sea now is largely there due to agricultural runoff, which carries in it pesticides and other fertilizer components. 

To help mitigate the effects of pollution, community leaders are working on negotiating ways to have the community benefit from these geothermal facilities, as water is somewhat scarce and the toxicity of this undertaking is a very real worry for its community members. As such, ensuring that the necessary safety protocols are in place and advocating for community benefits are key priorities during the execution of this operation.

Why does this matter?

This operation will launch the U.S. into being one of the top lithium mining producers globally, while also providing over two thousand jobs to its residents. And with the new method of extracting and preparing the mined lithium, we can look forward to a greener and more sustainable way of obtaining this needed resource. With safety and innovation in mind, this undertaking may influence the blueprint for a greener way of sourcing lithium worldwide.