Extracting lithium from the California desert

Lithium-ion batteries have become a popular power source for clean technologies like electric vehicles. They store a significant amount of energy in a small space and remain effective after hundreds, even thousands, of charging cycles. These same benefits also make them particularly attractive alternatives for energy storage for the electric grid.

Currently most of the lithium comes from overseas, including Australia, Chile and China. The only active lithium mine in the U.S., located in Clayton Valley, Nevada, only manufactures 1% of global lithium production. However, efforts are now underway to find more domestic sources to shift the country’s reliance away from foreign nations. This is a key aspect of Biden’s renewable energy agenda.

A new Lithium-Valley in the state

One of the sources being considered is California. Efforts are now underway to source lithium from the state’s desert region, particularly the Salton Sea, a shallow, highly saline, land-locked body of water in Imperial Valley and Riverside Counties. It’s estimated that the aquifers near the Salton Sea hold enough lithium to supply about 40 percent of the global demand.

As a result, this has become an attractive location for major energy companies and the California Energy Commission looking to determine if it’s technically and commercially viable to extract lithium from the brine that geothermal plants are already pulling from the depths of the Salton Sea. They are exploring an advanced mining technique known as direct lithium extraction (DLE), that uses a specially designed “lithium filter”—a more environmentally-responsible alternative to the traditional, resource-intensive open-pit mining and evaporation processes that are used overseas.

A promising option

“California lithium extraction was one of the topics we discussed at the recent CESA Market Development Forum, held in Berkeley in October,” says Jerry Zampino, BEI BESS general manager, who attended the conference. “This California lithium extraction initiative could prove critical to several California’s public policy initiatives: increasing sources of renewable energy, boosting the supply chain for battery production materials and encouraging new battery technology production for electric cars and energy storage.”