KJZZ is a service of Rio Salado College,
and Maricopa Community Colleges

Copyright © 2024 KJZZ/Rio Salado College/MCCCD
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

There may be way more lithium underneath the Salton Sea than we thought

New data from federal scientists suggests there may be way more lithium underneath the Salton Sea in Southern California than previously thought.

The report from researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory finds there could be up to 18 million metric tons of lithium there. That would be enough to power more than 380 million batteries for electric vehicles.

How big of a deal could the Salton Sea turn out to be in terms of its lithium supplies, and what that could mean for EVs and EV batteries?

Sammy Roth is the climate columnist for the Los Angeles Times joined The Show to talk about it.

MARK BRODIE: How big of a deal could the Salton Sea turn out to be in terms of its lithium supplies and what that could mean for EVs and EV batteries?

SAMMY ROTH: Well, it's been known for a long time that there's a whole bunch of lithium in this super heated underground pool, sort of deep beneath the the southern end of the Salton Sea. There have been companies for decades, actually that have been trying to get lithium out of there, and especially in the last decade as electric vehicles and energy storage on the the power grid become such a big need. But this this new report out of the federal government it's really a sort of eye popping number. They found that there's potentially enough lithium down there to supply batteries for 382 million electric vehicles, which is more, more vehicles than there are on the road in the United States today. So, if we could get all that lithium, that'd be huge.

BRODIE: Well, what are the, the challenges of doing that? Because as you write, it's not like, you know, companies can just go down there and get it and suddenly all these EVs will have batteries for them.

ROTH: That's right. I mean the underground reservoir is very, very deep, it's very, very hot. The water is extremely salty. So lithium and all sorts of other metals and chemicals dissolved in there, which makes it really corrosive. So the, the companies that have been drilling down into that reservoir for a while to to generate geothermal electricity basically, they flash off the steam and use it to spin a turbine, and it's clean electricity and it's available 24 hours a day. Some companies have, have made a business out of that, and they're making money, but it's been hard to do at a really high scale because that brine is so corrosive, it corrodes the pipes that it gets pumped through and, and that's been a problem for lithium as well. How do we pull the lithium out of the brine in a way that's cost effective. And how do we stop it from corroding all of our equipment and, and making us having to replace that equipment all the time.

BRODIE: Right, which becomes less cost effective, the more you have to replace the equipment, that's getting the lithium out of the ground.

ROTH: That's right.

BRODIE: So, it's interesting here and, and you write about this, this kind of irony of the Salton Sea, which is often seen as, you know, not a great thing for the environment, but as it turns out might be able to in some ways help the environment in the end.

BRODIE: Yeah, the the Salton Sea is a real interesting place. It's crucially important to the the dialogues that are happening around the Western U.S. right now about on the Colorado River because I mean, historically, the reason that that sea is there, at least in its modern form is that the farmers bringing water into the Imperial Valley more than 100 years ago, there was a big leak in one of their one of their canals, the salt and basin which was dry at the time, filled up with water as less Colorado River water gets used on those farms down there because global warming is drying it up. There's been less runoff from the irrigation replenishing the salt and sea. And so it's been shrinking. And so there's more dry shoreline getting exposed. And there's dust on that shoreline that's infused with pesticides and other chemicals that's getting wafted up by the winds and blown into the air, breathed by people in the Imperial Valley, which is a relatively low-income community with a very high Latino population. So this is sort of a huge environmental justice issue. That's what the Salton Sea is typically known for. But yeah, as, as you said, it, it has this real potential to help us build batteries for electric cars and keep the lights down on after sundown with batteries to supplement solar power and potentially to generate a lot more geothermal electricity too, which is this, you know, 24/7 clean energy source. So it's a contradictory place, but there's a lot of interesting stuff happening there.

BRODIE: Yeah. Well, so what are folks sort of in the renewable energy, the electric vehicle battery world saying about how strong that potential is, because as you say, there's a lot of lithium under there but it's difficult to get it out. So how, how much potential is there really that this could be a solution?

ROTH: I mean, the car companies are certainly hopeful. I mean, Ford earlier this year signed a contract, a binding contract, to purchase lithium from one of the companies that says it's gonna be able to start producing it down there in the next two years or so. Stellantis, one of the other big auto brands invested more than $100 million into another one of the companies that's trying to build its first lithium and geothermal facility down there, and Berkshire Hathaway as well, Warren Buffett's company, which has operated 10 geothermal plants down there for quite a while. They've been trying for a number of years now to invest in cost-effective lithium extraction technology and they're, they're obviously a really big player with high ambition. So do I really think we're gonna get, you know, all 18 million metric tons of, of lithium out and supply 382 million electric vehicle batteries. Like no, I probably wouldn't bet on that just because it's unclear what the future holds. But there's potential here and there's potential. By the way, I should say to extract this lithium in a way that's pretty environmentally friendly when you look at other lithium mining efforts in other parts of the Western United States and certainly in other parts of the world, a lot more environmentally damaging, hard rock mining giant evaporation ponds in South America. If we could get a lot of lithium here, it would be a less damaging way to do it than doing it elsewhere.

BRODIE: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about the potential relative to other places where lithium might be extracted. And as you point out it, it's potentially more environmentally friendly here. Also like land use issues, I mean, we read a lot about tribal lands, Native American lands that could be used for lithium extraction. This seems like the Salton Sea would have many fewer of those kinds of problems as well.

ROTH: That's absolutely right. I mean, you talk about tribal lands, the one that's gotten a lot of news coverage is the Thacker Pass lithium mine up in Nevada which,, the tribes in that area have been fighting really hard along with conservation groups to try to get that mine blocked. They have not had any success. Construction is underway. You know, like I said, I wouldn't bet the house on the Salton Sea companies have been trying to do this for a long time and thus far, they have not yet succeeded. But if we could, if we could get a bunch of lithium there and, you know, at least relatively limit the need to mine in a more destructive way elsewhere that could be beneficial.

BRODIE: Right. And in terms of a timeline, I mean, you mentioned that one of the car companies is looking to do something in the next couple of years. Is that sort of the the consensus timeline for us to know whether or not this potential here could be fully realized?

ROTH: Yeah, I mean, for the last gosh, going on eight or nine years, you've had companies saying that in the next two or three years they're gonna be able to start producing lithium. That hasn't happened yet, obviously. I would say with, with the contracts that Ford has signed and the investment that Stellantis had made, if it's gonna happen, it's probably gonna be, you know, relatively soon. I would say I'm looking at 2025 if companies are able to do it by 2025, I think that's a pretty good sign. If it starts to take a lot longer than that, you know, that might be a red flag.

BRODIE: Sure. All right, we'll have to leave it there. That is Sammy Roth, a climate columnist for the L A Times. Sammy, nice to talk to you. Thank you.

ROTH: You're welcome.

More stories from KJZZ

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.