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California's 'White Gold' Rush: Lithium In Demand Amid Surge In Electric Vehicles

Rod Colwell, CEO of Controlled Thermal Resources, is among many hoping to transform the area around California's Salton Sea into a domestic source of lithium for electric car batteries.
Benjamin Purper
Rod Colwell, CEO of Controlled Thermal Resources, is among many hoping to transform the area around California's Salton Sea into a domestic source of lithium for electric car batteries.

As demand for electric vehicles heats up, there's concern about a shortage of the key minerals needed to make them. The Biden administration has called for boosting domestic production of such minerals, including lithium for the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles. And that has many hoping for big business in a desolate spot of California's Imperial Valley.

A few miles from the shores of California's Salton Sea, a construction crew is at work on the future site of Hell's Kitchen Lithium and Power. It's a geothermal facility, meaning it uses Earth's natural heat to create electricity.

That alone has fueled investment here for years. This facility, run by the Australian company Controlled Thermal Resources, will someday produce enough geothermal energy to power 1.1 million homes. And once it's fully operational, it will also be able to extract lithium from the geothermal brine under the ground.

"The sea has been receding for up to about 20-40 yards a month in the shallow lands down here," explains CEO Rod Colwell, pointing out the change on a windy day in Calipatria, near the man-made lake's southern edge.

This has created a public health issue as the exposed lakebed subjects nearby communities to toxic dust rising from its surface. But "it's been exposing some of the best known lithium and geothermal resources on the planet," Colwell says. "It's a really interesting crossroads in time."

It's also a boon for geothermal and lithium companies like his. Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg are among the many investors also hoping for payoff with projects around the Salton Sea.

The best part, according to Colwell, is that geothermal lithium is environmentally benign and produces very few carbon emissions.

"It's 100% green," he says.

This process is in stark contrast to other types of lithium extraction across the globe. In places such as Canada and Australia, lithium is mined out of hard rock. In South American countries such as Chile and Argentina, it's concentrated through large evaporation ponds that take up lots of water.

"They're pumping the groundwater out, and that causes problems with the groundwater table. It's displaced farmers and llama herders in those countries," says Michael McKibben, associate professor of geology at the University of California, Riverside.

Lithium is in such high demand globally that it's now being called "white gold," says Mihri Ozkan, an expert on lithium batteries also at UC Riverside. She says this demand is driven mostly by electric vehicles.

In the U.S., California has pledged to phase out gas-powered vehicles. Last week, a dozen states including California asked President Biden to order all-zero-emission car sales by 2035. Earlier this year, General Motors said it aims to produce all-electric vehicles by then.

All this has companies racing to secure the raw materials needed for electric vehicles to avoid a shortage in a few years.

"You have so much rich lithium source in the Salton Sea," says Ozkan. "Extraction of this definitely can turn this area into the Lithium Valley, not the Silicon Valley but the Lithium Valley."

Last year, California created the Lithium Valley Commission, which it hopes will help this area become a source of not only energy but also economic development.

Even so, Sophie Lu of BloombergNEF says it probably won't revolutionize the global supply chain. Right now, the U.S. gets most of its lithium from China and she thinks that's not likely to change soon.

"Most optimistically, something might happen in the Salton Sea at an economic scale after 2025, maybe 2026," Lu says.

Rod Colwell's company, Controlled Thermal Resources, does not have an agreement to sell lithium yet. But with so many states, companies, and now President Biden focusing more on renewable energy, he feels the stars are aligning.

"The timing of the market has really caught up to it," he says. "It's like a perfect Lego fit."

Copyright 2021 KVCR

Benjamin Purper