Salton Sea Lithium Deposits Could Support 375 Million Electric Vehicles
The Salton Sea likely contains 18 million metric tons of lithium carbonate, according to a new report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Lithium is a key component in batteries for electric vehicles (EVs), and that quantity could support battery production for 375 million EVs, according to the report. The study also assessed environmental impacts of lithium extraction, including water use, air emissions, and solid waste.
Lithium is extracted from geothermal brine, which is pumped out of the ground during the process of producing geothermal energy. The United States has limited capabilities to extract, refine, and produce lithium, and almost all U.S. lithium supply must be imported. The global supply of lithium currently comes from Argentina, Chile, China and Australia.
California’s lithium deposits are seen as critical for both helping the U.S. become a global lithium producer and in developing an in-state supply chain for the state’s move to zero-emission vehicles. California lithium production is still in its early stages, however, as lithium producers must first overcome technological challenges in both expanding geothermal energy production and in lithium extraction in order to exploit this resource. (For background, see All New Cars Sold in California Must be ZEVs by 2035 and see California Taxes Lithium, a Key Component in EV Batteries.)
In 2022, a Blue Ribbon Commission on Lithium Extraction in California reported that the Salton Sea area is believed to have the highest concentration of lithium contained in geothermal brines in the world. The report offered recommendations aimed at expanding geothermal energy and lithium extraction from geothermal brines in the region.
According to the Department of Energy, the Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area (KGRA) has approximately 400 megawatts (MW) of geothermal electricity-generation capacity installed and is estimated to have the potential for up to 2,950 MW. This expansion of geothermal electricity production would bring increased production of the region’s available lithium resources.
California recently increased funding tax exclusions for alternative energy projects under the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority (CAEATFA) in what was seen as an effort to assist in the exploration and extraction of California’s lithium deposits. (see California Provides Tax Break Aimed at Aiding Lithium Developers).