In today’s fast-paced tech environment, no one can make a splash quite like Elon Musk. So when he decided to enter the energy storage game in 2014, he did it with gusto. Musk is now in the process of building what he coined a “gigafactory,” which is a lithium-ion battery manufacturing plant in Nevada. Of course, the plant is being built at such an efficient pace that its ahead of schedule and is now set to start production in 2016.
Since the gigafactory plans were revealed, Musk has continued to wow the industry with announcements like the unveiling of Powerwall, a residential storage system that pairs with rooftop solar, which can be financed and installed by his other company that you may have already heard of, SolarCity.
The Salton Sea. Credit: Shutterstock.
Musk has certainly shined a light on the lithium-ion battery, and analysts expect the industry grow at an exorbitant clip within the next few years alone. However, big growth like this does not come without its challenges, and in this case, some industry insiders have begun murmuring about resource concerns.
“If you take a look at [lithium] supply and demand dynamics over the next few years, [in] 2015, you’re already looking at a possible supply of 300,000 tons and possible demand of 480,000 tons,” according to Alix Steel of Bloomberg. “We are seeing a 7-10 percent annual growth for demand, so we would not have enough lithium as projects stand right now.”
However, Steel also said that there are more than 13 million tons of lithium reserves — plenty to satisfy our growing need — but the problem is extraction: it takes lots of time and, in some cases, lots of money.
Lithium is commonly extracted from either hard rock via an energy-intensive roasting and leeching process, or from salty brines. The brine is laid out in pools where it evaporates, leaving behind lithium and other minerals. Though it is relatively low-cost, the evaporation process can take up to two years and it is difficult to get most of the lithium out of the brine.
Graphic: Simbol Materials lithium extraction process. Credit: Simbol Materials.
In order to avoid this process, some developers have turned to the Salton Sea in Imperial Valley, California, which sits on a massive geothermal resource. If developed, it could potentially unlock nearly 3 gigawatts (GW) of capacity. Developers have taken notice, and the Imperial Irrigation District has created a plan to develop 1.7 GW by 2032 – if they can get some financial backing. While it sounds like a no-brainer, the project faces several hurdles, including a lack of transmission and long permitting processes.
What does this have to do with lithium? While the Salton Sea has huge geothermal potential, it’s also considered one of the world’s most mineral-rich environments, and developers have taken notice. To pair these two resources, several companies around the world have created a lithium extraction process from geothermal brine. This technology allows companies to bypass the traditional evaporation process, because once a geothermal plant uses up hot brine to produce energy, rather than pumping it back into the ground, this new technology snaps it up. Then, using a series of filters and absorption techniques, it separates materials, and eventually extracts lithium.
One company that has caused quite a stir in the U.S. is Simbol Materials, which has demonstrated this technology’s viability at one of the lone geothermal plants located in the Salton Sea area. In 2012, Simbol established a demonstration plant at the 49.9-MW John L. Featherstone geothermal plant, which was a 2012 winner of the Renewable Energy World Project of the Year Awards partly due to this innovative technology.
“The Salton Sea geothermal field is among the world’s largest and highest temperature resources because it lies directly inside an active plate tectonic boundary,” said ACORE’s Dennis McGinn during a press call. “In addition to generating thermal power, Salton Sea geothermal brines are well-known for their exceptionally high concentrations of minerals. These minerals include lithium, manganese and zinc, which are important to battery and energy storage technology, and are truly a national strategic asset.”
The John L. Featherstone Plant in California. Credit: Geothermal Resources Council.
Simbol has since produced the world’s first battery grade Li2Co3 lithium from geothermal brine. The company said that it is currently able to process 6 gallons of brine per minute, but it believes it can increase to 6,000 gallons per minute to produce more than 15,000 tons of battery-grade lithium per year.
Salton Sea initiative supporters are hoping that this extraction technology coupled with the growing demand for lithium in nearby Nevada, and Musk’s desire to only use materials produced in the U.S. will bring an extra incentive to develop more geothermal plants, and ultimately boost the local economy and protect the environment.
In fact, Simbol was reportedly planning to build a commercial-scale plant that would create to up to 150 permanent jobs in an employment-weary area, according to The Desert Sun. However, it couldn’t happen soon enough and in early 2015, the company laid off the majority of its employees citing financial difficulties, leaving its bright future in question.
Meanwhile, other regions are investigating the viability of this technology, including geothermal-rich New Zealand. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment commissioned a two-year study to determine if and how mineral extraction could succeed. The April 2015 report stated that though “the composition and volume of geothermal fluids in New Zealand also offers considerable potential for the extraction of various metals and minerals,” the report questions the technology’s economic viability.
“While extracting products from geothermal fluids is technically feasible, positive economics is the key driver for commercial success.”