The Salton Sea, which lies roughly in the middle of the massive geological low point, isn’t really a sea at all. The largest inland lake in California, it is 51 miles long from north to south and 17 miles wide, but is gradually shrinking as the water flow into it decreases. At one time, it was a thriving place of entertainment and recreation, and the business also largely dried up. It left behind abandoned buildings and shallow gray beaches. The highways that surround the lake are now mostly crossed by passing trucks.
Over the past few years, companies have been coming here to extract a valuable metal, lithium, which the auto industry needs as it transitions to electric cars. Lithium is the lightest metallic element naturally found on Earth, This is why among other things, it is important for electric car batteries, which must store a lot of electricity in a package that weighs as little as possible.
Furthermore, with the unique geography of the Salton Sea Basin, engineers and technicians can obtain lithium with the least amount of environmental destruction, according to the companies that operate there. Elsewhere, lithium is taken from the ground using hard rock mining that leaves huge ugly scars in the ground. Here, it is naturally present in liquid form, so extraction does not require mining or blasting.
Over the millennia, flood waters from the Colorado River, laden with minerals, have drifted away from the Rocky Mountains, Ruby Canyon, Glen Canyon, Grand Canyon, and more, into these lowlands. The water comes in and evaporates over and over again, leaving behind minerals that have ended up deep in the earth.
plentiful lithium in the Salton Sea Basin. In fact, the people working to extract it say there may be enough to make batteries for all electric vehicles expected to be manufactured in this country for many years, freeing the United States from dependence on foreign lithium suppliers. This was a priority for the Biden administration.
The Earth’s crust is thin here, and there is deep underground water close to hot liquid rock inside the Earth, called magma. Trapped in this natural oven, this water became a super-heated metal stew.
Geothermal companies here have been working for decades drilling in nearly 700 degrees of water, allowing it to boil instantly out of the ground. Steam from the hot brine – so called because of its high metal content – spins turbines to generate electricity. It is then pumped back into the ground where it is heated up again to start over. This type of energy is clean and renewable because it depends on it They occur naturally in the ground.
It’s one of the largest geothermal fields in the world,” said Derek Benson, chief operating officer of EnergySource Minerals.
EnergySource Minerals was It spun off in 2018 from EnergySource, a geothermal company that has been generating electricity from brine that heated the Salton Sea for a decade. EnergySource Minerals is now working on getting lithium from the brine you use for energy.
How much lithium is here, exactly, and how much can be extracted, are questions a research team from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories is working to discover.
Roughly a quarter of the water drawn from deep underground here is molten rock, a much higher mineral concentration than you’d find in ordinary seawater, according to Patrick Dobson, a Berkeley Labs geologist who is leading the research. Lithium makes up about 200 parts per million, he said, which compares to about 10 parts per million in some other hot geothermal fields.
“That’s why this is so interesting,” he said. “It’s not just thermal brine. There are certain places where there is lithium enrichment in brine and the Salton Sea is where in the United States we really focus our attention.”
People who have worked with this brine for a long time know its contents, but there is no point in using large amounts of undifferentiated minerals and extracting them selectively was not economical. But that was before electric cars became such a big deal, and the price of lithium started rising. So companies have invested in new technologies to extract lithium from brine.
“We use what we call selective lithium absorption,” Benson said. “So we pass the lithium brine through one of our proprietary adsorbents. It has chemistry that’s only really lithium and lithium related.”
One of the challenges, Dobson of Berkeley Labs, said is how efficiently these techniques draw lithium out of brine. Even though there is a lot of lithium in the brine, these extraction techniques likely won’t be able to get 100% out of every drop.
Also, since lithium is pushed out of the brine and then the brine is pumped back deep into the Earth, will lithium levels be significantly depleted or will levels replenish as lithium rises from the rocks?
“We know from measurements of the rocks still in the tank that not all of the lithium is in the brine,” he said. “There is still lithium in the rocks.”
Collecting lithium now looks like a bigger profit for companies like EnergySource than their original business of generating electricity from steamy soup. In fact, other companies are getting into geothermal energy pretty much so that they can get their hands on lithium. In their case, electricity is just a bonus.
Not far from EnergySource’s tan geothermal plants, a company called Controlled Thermal Resources has its own small power plant. This one is currently in the testing phase, but CTR has already formed a partnership with General Motors, which will purchase lithium produced here for its electric vehicles. Recently, Italian battery company Italvolt announced plans to create a subsidiary to work with click-through rate (CTR). Plans call for Statevolt, as the transverse part is called, to build a battery manufacturing facility nearby, using both power produced by CTR generators and lithium taken from brine there. The plant could one day produce enough batteries for 650,000 electric cars a year, according to Italvolt.
Putting battery manufacturing on site would eliminate material shipping costs as well as carbon dioxide emissions from all the ships, trains and trucks needed to transport lithium to battery plants that today are located mostly in Asia, said CEO Rod Colwell. Clickthrough rate.
From ‘Western Riviera’ to ‘One of the Worst Nightmares’
This new rush of interest could mean good things for a community that needs some help. Decades ago, the Salton Sea was A tourist destination, where people flock to the California desert oasis to enjoy boating and jet-skiing. That was before evaporation dried up the lake, concentrating the pollutants into the shrinking body of water.
“You’ll find people from Hollywood, superstars from Southern California who come boating and enjoy great restaurants and play golf,” said Frank Ruiz, director of the Salton Sea Program for the National Audubon Society. “That was life in the Salton Sea in the 1950s and 1960s and only 50 years later, that’s what we have,” he said, looking around a largely deserted lake shore.
“You went from being a Western Riviera to one of your worst environmental and health nightmares,” he said.
The lake is shrinking due to a lack of natural flows, along with years of drought and rising temperatures due to climate change. As the lake continues to recede, it leaves behind sand and sticky mud that contains a high percentage of pollutants. That, he said, combined with the fact that the area is a natural basin that tends to trap smoke and smog from surrounding areas, contributes to higher rates of asthma.
Today, the area is almost deserted with some clearly thriving date plantations with rows of thick palm trees. Artists were drawn to the area’s blank canvas of empty structures and open spaces, creating a colony of painted and ornate homes. Large statues of wire and concrete inhabit the beach.
What flooded the region several times over the eons. The lake that exists today was created around 1905 when man-made channels overflowed into the desert lowlands. For a long time, the large lake that resulted from it was a boon for traveling birds, as well as for lovers of water sports.
“We used to get over 400 different species of birds and pretty much all of the species that are in California, in the Salton Sea,” Ruiz said. “From an environmental perspective, it’s one of the last enduring gems along the Pacific Flight Trail, especially here in California.”
The lake and its waters are not related to the lithium-rich brine, but, Ruiz hopes, the lithium extraction could provide jobs and revenue to help rebuild the Salton Sea Region’s economy and possibly its damaged environment, as well as put more electric vehicles the way.
“This could be really good for the entire region. Not just for Imperial County, for the Coachella Valley, for all of Californians,” said Ruiz. “I mean, nationwide, that could be a catalyst.”
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