Beneath California’s Salton Sea lies a vast pool of super-heated fluid that’s long been exploited as a source of geothermal power. The underground reservoir is also rich in lithium, but over the years, so many companies have tried, and failed, to economically extract the light white stuff, that the area has been called a “graveyard for lithium-extraction technologies.” One famous failure was Simbol Materials, which attracted a buyout bid from Tesla before going belly-up in 2015.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, David Snydacker, a materials engineer and battery expert, believes he has found the magic formula. His Oakland-based startup, Lilac Solutions, recently announced a $20-million funding round led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which counts famous names such as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Michael Bloomberg among its investors.
Lilac’s technological secret sauce is an ion-exchange process that forces mineral-rich brine through a container filled with lithium-absorbing beads. Once the beads are saturated, acid is used to flush out the lithium.
Lilac has partnered with the Australian firm Controlled Thermal Resources to develop a geothermal power plant and lithium-extraction facility at the Salton Sea. The company is also working with Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy, which wants to build a pilot lithium-extraction plant using Lilac’s technology.
Despite the clickbait scare stories, there’s no shortage of lithium on the global market. However, much battery-grade lithium comes from environmentally dodgy sites in South America, and there’s also pressure to develop sources for the strategic mineral here in the US. The Salton Sea could potentially produce loads of lithium, with the added benefit of more geothermal power.
Controlled Thermal plans to drill preliminary wells over the next three months. Lilac will then spend several weeks testing its technology, after which a full-scale facility will be built. Controlled Thermal hopes to produce over 17,000 tons of lithium carbonate by 2023, and double that amount by 2025. The California Energy Commission estimates that the Salton Sea geothermal area could someday supply up to 200,000 tons.
“You really want to compete in the global lithium market, which I think the Imperial Valley can,” said Controlled Thermal CEO Rod Colwell. “We firmly believe that the Imperial Valley is in the first quartile of production costs globally.”
Source: Los Angeles Times