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California Wants its Imperial Valley to be 'Lithium Valley'

News | November 16, 2020

California Wants Its Imperial Valley to Be ‘Lithium Valley’

November 16, 2020

Dust storms laced with toxins sweep across California’s Imperial County, where mud volcanoes spit and hiss near the shores of the slowly shrinking lake known as the Salton Sea. The county is one of California’s poorest, most of its jobs tied to a thin strip of irrigated land surrounded by desert. San Diego and the Golden State’s prosperous coast lie only 100 miles away across a jumble of mountains, but it might as well be another world.

Yet this overlooked moonscape may hold the key to America’s clean-car future. Hot brine trapped beneath the desert floor contains potentially one of the world’s biggest deposits of lithium. Demand for the metal is soaring as automakers worldwide shift to electric cars powered by lithium-ion batteries. Most of that lithium now comes from Australia, China, and South America. The U.S. badly wants its own supply.

There’s no doubt the lithium is there. The brine containing it already flows to the surface day and night through a series of 11 geothermal power plants, clustered around the southeastern edge of the Salton Sea. The plants, operating for decades, convert the 500F water into steam to generate electricity. All that’s needed is a way to strip out the lithium before pumping the rest of the brine back underground. A March 2020 report from research organization SRI International estimated that the Salton Sea area could produce 600,000 tons of lithium a year, almost eight times last year’s global production.

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