Critics of electric cars would like you to believe that all of the mining for all of the minerals needed in EVs is performed by environmentally destructive means. This may not be an entirely accurate representation of the actual mining and extraction process that gets the lithium necessary for your Li-Ion battery. And the processes are getting cleaner all the time.
Lithium is needed to make batteries for electric cars. Right now, most lithium comes from Australia – 51,000 tons of it in 2019. Second-highest producer of lithium is Chile with 16,000 tons. The list drops off precipitously from there. But the world is going to need a lot more very soon, especially carmakers such as GM, which, along with many if not most of the world’s carmakers has pledged to go all-EV very soon, GM by 2035.
So GM has just signed an innovative agreement with a company called Controlled Thermal Resources to extract Lithium from superheated waters beneath the Salton Sea in the desert of Southern California.
The Salton Sea is an ancient water pocket that has been formed and dried up both naturally and by man-made mistake several times over millennia. It was a part of the Sea of Cortez between Baja California and Mainland Mexico millions of years ago. But as sea levels fell, the Salton Sea dried up and that might have been that, as far as we are concerned. But then someone wanting to irrigate crops in the fertile Imperial Valley tried to divert the waters of the mighty Colorado River just a little bit and then – slosh – the Salton Sea filled up again. That was more than 100 years ago. Since then, the accidental ocean has been fed toxic runoff from the many acres of farmland just south of it. What was once a promising resort with “bass, catfish and stripers!” turned into a smelly chemical sludge puddle. But it was a sludge puddle with lithium.
GM just announced that it became the first investor in a project run by Controlled Thermal Resources. CTR will pump hot, salty water from deep below the Salton Sea and extract the lithium from it, along with clean thermo energy at the same time. Cleaner water goes back into the Salton Sea and the ground beneath it. It’s a win-win. You might even add another win in there when you consider the California Energy Commission’s estimate that the Salton Sea area could produce 600,000 tons of lithium per year, which is amazing since the entire world’s industry produced a mere 85,000 tons of lithium in all of 2019.
“CTR’s lithium resource at the Salton Sea in California is one of the largest known lithium brine resources in North America,” CTR said in a release. “The integration of direct lithium extraction with renewable geothermal energy offers the highest sustainability credentials available today. CTR’s closed-loop, direct lithium extraction process utilizes renewable power and steam – significantly reducing the time to produce battery-grade lithium products and eliminating the need for overseas processing. CTR’s operations will have a minimal physical footprint and a near-zero carbon footprint. The brine, after lithium extraction, is returned to the geothermal reservoir deep within the earth.”
“World-wide growth in electric vehicle adoption has highlighted the critical need to develop a strong and secure battery supply chain in the United States,” said Rod Colwell, CTR’s Chief Executive Officer.. “CTR is fully committed to developing its significant lithium resource in response to this, and we look forward to collaborating with GM as we continue to accelerate these efforts.”
“Lithium is critical to battery production today and will only become more important as consumer adoption of EVs increases, and we accelerate towards our all-electric future,” said Doug Parks, GM executive vice president of Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain. “By securing and localizing the lithium supply chain in the U.S., we’re helping ensure our ability to make powerful, affordable, high mileage EVs while also helping to mitigate environmental impact and bring more low-cost lithium to the market as a whole.”
CTR should start lithium deliveries to GM by 2024. If the Salton Sea pans out as well as it should, the area could provide 40 percent of the world’s lithium – all of it American-made. USA! USA! USA!
The GM deal sounds promising, right? Let us know what you think in the comments.
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