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San Diego Company Says It Can Extract Lithium From Geothermal Brine

 October 16, 2019 at 10:20 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 Lithium ion batteries are central to modern life, from mobile phones to electric vehicles that the United States lacks reliable sources of lithium that could change. Thanks to research being conducted in the desert East of San Diego as part of coverage from the KPBS climate change desk. I spoke with Los Angeles times reporter Sammy Roth about his story on lithium development on the shores of the salt and sea. Well, first let's talk about geothermal power generation at the Salton sea. How many plants are there and why are they under utilize compared with other renewable energy sources like wind and solar, which after all depend on the weather and the time of day. Speaker 2: 00:37 So right now there are 11 geothermal plants set down by the Southern end of the Salton sea. Uh, most of them were built in the eighties and nineties. So the, you know, the resource has been utilized for awhile. Um, the thing is that building these geothermal plants and generating the energy from this underground, uh, you know, heated geothermal reservoir, it's, it's quite expensive compared to solar and wind. So while it has virtues, uh, namely as you just sort of refer to the fact that that geothermal can go around the clock, unlike solar and wind, which are weather dependent. And by the way it's renewable, it's carbon free like solar and wind, but it's, it's much more expensive to build these plants. Um, and the electricity is costlier. So that's why there hasn't been, hasn't been more development. Speaker 1: 01:15 And tell us a little bit about the geothermal process. Why is it so expensive and what do they have to do? Speaker 2: 01:20 Well, it's um, it's interesting, it's, it's, it's a lot more similar to sort of traditional, um, you know, power generation like you'd see from a coal or gas plant. It involves drilling Wells down into these, you know, underground reservoirs pumping stuff up to the surface. Um, you bring up this super-heated fluid that you, uh, you generate steam off of, you lower the pressure, creates steam. It turns turbines. There's just sort of a lot more machinery and equipment and uh, you know, upfront expense involved as compared to solar and wind because, uh, as solar and wind, which have gotten a lot cheaper, mainly because it's just this, you know, technology creating solar panels, building wind turbines that has just gotten cheaper and cheaper over time in a way that you can't really do with geothermal. Speaker 1: 02:01 It is a naturally heated, uh, as, as we should note there. And this, Brian, you're talking about this, this geothermal brine that's, that's pumped back up to the surface. That's where the highly valuable lithium is extracted, right? Remind us why lithium is in such high demand. Speaker 2: 02:15 That's right. So this, this Brian that comes up to the surface, it's um, it's fluid that's about 70 or 75% water and the rest of the, you know, the last 25 or 30% is mineral. So it's super, super salty. Um, a little tiny portion of that is lithium. And the reason lithium is so valuable is because it's this key ingredient in lithium ion batteries, which are what's used to power electric vehicles and increasingly for energy storage on the power grid and also for our cell phones which have a lithium ion batteries in them. So it's, it's something that the world is probably going to need a lot more of and there's very little production of it in the United States right now. If, if there was a commercial lithium facility at the salt and sea, it would be the first major source of lithium in the U S Speaker 1: 02:58 and the San Diego that you wrote about Speaker 2: 03:00 has a technique that's promising. What generally is the process? I know it's kinda secretive as you noted in your story. Yeah, the tricky to, to get a good description of it, but, but basically, um, what folks have been trying to do down at these geothermal plants for a long time is figuring out a way after you've generated the energy off of this geothermal drying to take it, to run it through some kind of system that's going to pull the lithium and potentially other minerals out of it. Um, and, and to get those out before you re-inject the Bryon back down into the reservoir. Um, the failures of companies in the past to have mostly been when you've had, uh, sort of, uh, startups or technology development efforts where folks have been trying to come up with something new and unique. Uh, what this company now energy source, uh, says that it's, it's done that's different is rather than try to come up with, you know, a fancy new technology, they've instead taken processes that are in place elsewhere and other, you know, mining or wastewater related industries around the world and basically just lined them up in a way that is well suited to this sort of unique, very hot, very salty geothermal. Speaker 2: 04:03 Dryden. Speaker 1: 04:04 And so they're taking processes that were there and they're just improving on them, which, which happens all the time in American manufacturing. Speaker 2: 04:09 That that's what they say they're doing. That's what, uh, you know, their claim is that, uh, that's what's enabled them to succeed where a lot of other companies have failed in the past. Okay. Speaker 1: 04:17 And lithium, now it's being imported from far away places here in, in terms of the United States, right. And the process you're talking about, the, uh, conventional process is time consuming and expensive. Speaker 2: 04:28 That's right. So most of the lithium that's used in the U S today comes from either South America or Australia. And both of those places have, um, these extraction processes that are much more like traditional mining that are pretty environmentally destructive and not especially well loved. But that's where the lithium comes from. So people take it, one of the, the virtues of the Salton sea, geothermal resources, if you can, you know, figure out how to get large quantities of lithium out of there. There's a pretty minimal environmental impact and it's a quick process relative to what happens elsewhere in the [inaudible]. Speaker 1: 05:03 And what might all this mean to the economy of the Imperial Valley, which has a horrible employment rate. Speaker 2: 05:08 Yeah, there's a, there's sort of always been hope in the Imperial Valley that, uh, if you get, you know, lithium and mineral extraction off the ground and if that helps get more geothermal projects built, that this could be a significant source of, of tax revenues and royalty payments and, you know, potentially construction jobs. It's something that they've wanted for a long time. I think the, the folks there, you know, rightly skeptical anytime a company comes around now and says it's going to get this done because so many others are promised in the past. But there's, you know, there's, there's hope, it's an industry that, uh, you know, it's a farming region mostly. Uh, a lot of the jobs are, are low paid agriculture jobs. And so this is an industry that, that people that are hopeful can, can provide something new and different for that economy. Speaker 1: 05:49 And, uh, if there was a way to remove this lithium from the brine in a cost effective way, uh, that could lead to more geothermal plants being built there. Right? Speaker 2: 05:59 Yeah. That's, that's one of the potential virtues of it. So geothermal is, we, as we discussed earlier, it has this potentially very valuable role that it could play as, as California tries to achieve 100% climate friendly energy sources, which is that it can go, you know, around the clock 24, seven unlike solar and wind, um, you know, advocates for the technology say that we just need to figure out ways to get around these high upfront costs and get investors to actually finance these plants. Um, so that can play that role. The lithium could help with that because basically it's, it's another revenue stream, right? If, if someone's trying to get a geothermal project built, it looks a lot better on paper. If you can say, not only am I going to generate revenue selling electricity, I'm also going to be able to sell all this lithium. Speaker 1: 06:42 I've been speaking with reporters, semi Roth of the Los Angeles times. Thanks very much. Happy to be here. Speaker 3: 06:48 Uh.

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Lithium-ion batteries are central to modern life; from mobile phones to electric vehicles. But the United States lacks a major source of lithium. That could change, thanks to research being conducted on the shores of the Salton Sea.
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