Cali lithium worth $540bn, key to US battery dominance

A California lake in Imperial Valley is situated atop one of the world’s largest “white gold” mines, but an Australian energy company will be among the primary benefactors.

Two decades have passed since Controlled Thermal Resources, established in 2013 in Australia, began developing and managing energy initiatives in the valley south of Palm Springs.

Numerous initiatives utilized geothermal energy, which operates on steam turbines powered by magma-hot, molten temperatures deep within the Earth’s crust. Experts consider this method of electricity generation environmentally sustainable.

However, recently, the company has shifted its focus towards the lithium metal reserves in southern California, commonly referred to as “lithium salts” due to their delicate, silvery-white appearance.

According to experts, CTR’s major commitment to the California officials who approved the project is the opportunity to harvest immense quantities of lithium to increase the United States energy independence without harming local ecosystems and communities or contributing to global warming.

However, the United States government hopes the project will catapult the country’s energy independence away from China’s substantial imports of lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium, an indispensable constituent for batteries that supply power to electric vehicles, solar panels, and smartphones, has been the market leader in China for several decades due to the country’s exclusive refinement of 90 per cent of the metal mined.

At a trade volume of $9.3 billion in 2022 alone, Chinese lithium-ion batteries comprise the overwhelming majority of battery imports into the United States today, according to the United Nations Comtrade Database.Cali lithium worth $540bn, key to US battery dominance

Many companies competing for a share of the Imperial Valley’s burgeoning lithium empire, California regulators, environmentalists, and scientists hope to be a part of that transition without destroying SoCal’s land and local population.

UC Riverside-educated local geochemist Michael McKibben quoted the Desert Sun as saying, “Nothing will be entirely clean.”

“However, this is the most environmentally friendly method employing geothermal.”

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and McKibben are mapping lithium deposits and assessing their ecological and human impacts.

McKibben stated, “Traditional methods of lithium mining are extremely destructive and difficult on the environment for local communities; therefore, the small footprint of geothermal lithium is appealing.”

“Because the brine is already brought to the surface for the steam, there is no need to excavate pits or construct enormous evaporation ponds,” McKibben said of the Salton Sea’s distinctive lithium-salted water.

Apply a lithium filter to the saline before reintroducing it into the underground environment.

CTR, which initially disclosed their lithium project in the Salton Sea in 2016, ‘redomiciled’ their company to the United States in 2022, as stated on their website. They declared that their new headquarters would be in Imperial County, California.

However, the utility company’s office remains in Brisbane, Australia.

However, this Australian expat company is one of many seeking to generate environmentally sustainable revenues from the landlocked saltwater lake.

Companies of all sizes have flocked to the Salton Sea for economical methods to extract the lithium dissolved in the lake’s submerged scalding saline water at its southernmost point.

A new study, which the Department of Energy (DOE) funded, discovered last December that the basin contains an even greater quantity of lithium than previously anticipated. This discovery has intensified competition among state and local agencies for development contracts.

According to the DOE study, 18 million tonnes of extractable metal may be sufficient to satisfy the United States’ demand for the precious metal for decades.

The discoveries would elevate the reservoir to the greatest in the world, surpassing the reservoir in Chile, which holds nine million metric tonnes.

California Governor Gavin Newsom once referred to the Salton Sea as “the Saudi Arabia of lithium mining,” a reference to the substance’s enormous economic value.

The lithium supply in the Salton Sea, valued at over $540 billion, prices at $29,000 per tonne.

The DOE stated it could sustain batteries for more than 375 million electric vehicles.

According to Jeff Marootian, principal deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, lithium is crucial for achieving President Biden’s objective of 50 per cent electric vehicle adoption by 2030 and decarbonizing the economy.

“This report validates the once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand clean, flexible electricity generation while simultaneously establishing a domestic lithium industry.”

By utilizing American innovation in the renewable energy sector, we can strengthen our national energy security, generate employment opportunities, and establish a robust domestic supply chain.

Following an extensive twelve-year period of engineering, permit negotiations, and fundraising, CTR commenced construction of its lithium extraction and geothermal power facility earlier this year.

“Union employees will perform the labor.” John Podesta, the renewable energy advisor to President Biden and an attendee at the groundbreaking, told the Los Angeles Times that these will be tremendously rewarding positions.

According to industry insiders, however, many unknowns remain due to the project’s ambitious scope, notwithstanding these grandiose claims.

According to Energy Recovery, Inc. director Erik Desormeaux, the large-scale extraction of lithium from geothermal brines has never been attempted before.

Desormeaux told The Daily Beast, “Therefore, it remains to be seen whether the electric vehicle industry, the local community, and the environment will benefit.”

General Motors, for one, is a significant investor in the endeavor’s success. Forbes reports that the automaker has committed to procuring lithium from CTR, indicating the evident desire of electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers to procure lithium domestically for their lithium-ion batteries.

Desormeaux stated, “I believe people are extremely optimistic about the project; however, much depends on “wait and see.”

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