If the battle cry in California in the 1800s was “There’s gold in them hills,” the one for the 21st century would be “There’s lithium in the sea” – a development that is now prompting companies to come in, hoping to strike it rich in one of the world’s most sought-after commodities.
Clean energy-driven lithium mining initiatives are currently being developed near California’s Salton Sea in an area that’s now being referred to as Lithium Valley.
According to Eric Spomer, president and CEO of EnergySource Minerals, one of the firms working on the recovery of lithium from geothermal brine, it is possible that the Salton Sea could yield up to more than 300,000 tons of processed lithium per year. This conservative estimate is actually more than half of the world’s currently available supply of lithium.
Spomer’s company is one of many that is working to extract lithium out of Salton’s briny waters. At present, it’s working to build a processing facility within the area that Spomer hopes will be operational by 2025.
A Different Way of Doing Things
In conventional lithium mining, lithium is extracted by way of rock mining or recovery from evaporation ponds.
EnergySource Minerals and other companies are thinking of a different approach – and the former is in the process of developing what could be the cleanest and most efficient process in the industry.
This process will involve brine pumped up to the surface by geothermal power plants. Here, brine heated to around six hundred degrees rises to the surface from over a mile underground. The pumping process produces steam which, in turn, drives turbines to generate electricity.
In conventional lithium mining, this mineral-rich brine is usually returned to the earth. But EnergySource’s process expects to draw lithium out of the brine prior to returning it underground.
Not the Only One
However, EnergySource Minerals is far from the only company that seeks to get a major piece of the action in Lithium Valley.
Just down the road from EnergySource’s site, another firm – Australia’s Controlled Thermal Resources – is in the process of fine-tuning its own testing facility. According to company chief executive Rod Colwell, his firm has been successful in its initial forays to extract lithium from brine. He added that his process costs about $4,000 per ton extracted from raw ore; the finished product sells at six times that amount.
Likewise, mogul Warren Buffet’s firm BHE Renewables already runs ten geothermal power plants in the region – and it’s yet another venture that seeks to capitalize on the lithium rush.