Imperiled Source Water Body Could Be Environmental Savior As Source for Lithium

While it’s well known that source water scarcity is presenting numerous drinking water problems across the country — forcing consumer cutbacks, interstate conflicts, and more — recent innovation has uncovered a silver lining, right in the heart of this historic drought.

“About 40 miles north of the California-Mexico border lies the shrinking, landlocked lake known as the Salton Sea,” CNBC reported. “But amid this environmental disaster, the California Energy Commission estimates there’s enough lithium here to meet all of the United States’ projected future demand and 40% of the world’s demand.”

Lithium is a compound used in numerous industrial practices, most notably the production of electric vehicles, which are becoming more popular around the world. And while extracting the precious resource is usually water intensive and environmentally harmful, the supplies found at Salton Sea should be relatively easy to access as companies develop new chemical processes to do so.

“Near the lake, there are already 11 operating geothermal power plants, 10 of which are owned by Berkshire Hathaway’s renewable energy division, BHE Renewables,” per CNBC. “As mining projects face community concern and backlash in other parts of the country, it seems that lithium recovery at the Salton Sea could be the rare-minerals project that unites most stakeholders.”
Drilling for lithium and geothermal has begun at the Salton Sea in an area known for geothermal energy production near Niland, CA, on Nov. 23, 2021. Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun

The potential to extract lithium from the Salton Sea would present one of the most unexpected environmental dynamics in recent history. A source water body that was ravaged by drought and contamination for decades could now be the world’s greatest source of a compound that’s central to more environmentally-friendly vehicles, and will now give miners the chance to access that compound while doing considerably less damage to the planet.

Still, there is a lot left to prove before the Salton Sea can become a transformative environmental success story. BHE Renewables is still in the first stages of two pilot projects to determine whether lithium extraction there is really commercially viable. Then, if those are successful, a commercial plant could be built in the region in the next couple of years.

“This would put BHE Renewables on a path to commercial scale production of lithium by 2026,” Desert Sun reported. “Once at commercial scale, BHE Renewables facilities could produce an estimated 90,000 metric tons of lithium per year.”

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