The Salton Sea region has one of the world’s largest known reserves of lithium, enough to power batteries for more than 50 million electric vehicles within a few years. But first it must be extracted from hot geothermal brine loaded with toxic material, a process that’s never been done before at scale.
Wander the unpaved, dusty, rural roads southeast of California’s troubled Salton Sea on a baking, 112-degree Fahrenheit August afternoon and two things soon stand out. Improbably, this desert-adjacent part of the Golden State is a productive agricultural region loaded with alfalfa and hay fields, made possible by the All American Canal bringing in Colorado River water. The stark landscape is also dotted with rusty, steampunk structures — geothermal plants cranking out enough clean electricity to power nearly 70,000 homes.
These plants pull energy out of a boiling brine, pumped up to the stark surface from 8,000 feet underground. But the steaming volcanic stew is good for more than just its heat: The Salton Sea brine is also one of the world’s richest sources of lithium, a mineral that’s in high demand because it’s used to make electric vehicle batteries. The new U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, which prioritizes domestic sourcing of minerals for EV batteries, combined with California’s new rule to end sales of new gasoline cars over the next decade, will only intensify that demand. With the silvery white metal going for $70,000 a ton, Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently described lithium production as “a license to print money.”
Three companies — Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Controlled Thermal and EnergySource Minerals — think they know how to pull lithium out of the 600-degree brine. By removing impurities in a way that’s far more environmentally friendly than other modes of lithium production, these companies hope to refine the brine’s contents into a form of lithium that battery makers can use.
“I would like to once again urge entrepreneurs to enter the lithium refining business. … It’s a license to print money.”
Two of the companies want to begin commercial production within two years, and combined lithium output by all three could reach 100,000 metric tons by about 2027, based on company targets — enough to power more than 50 million electric cars. That means the brine of the Salton Sea, a toxic body of water deemed a public health emergency, is potentially worth $6 billion.
Lithium also represents a big source of jobs and tax dollars for one of the poorest parts of California, where the median household income is 40% below the state average. In its excitement for the resource, the state of California has already set a tax of $400 per ton for the first 20,000 tons of Salton Sea lithium to help restore the deeply distressed area, where residents face high lung disease rates due to toxic dust the wind has picked up from the bed of the shrinking sea. For the state, it’s a win-win: The project can “provide the resources necessary to accelerate the transition to clean energy while also creating new jobs and economic development in the local community,” Governor Gavin Newsom’s office told Forbes by email.
But there’s a hitch for California’s Lithium Valley: The technology to suck that precious lithium out of the boiling hot brine, which is highly corrosive and loaded with toxins like arsenic and lead, is unproven. That makes some locals nervous, who worry about being an “experimental zone” for the new industry. Experts say it could be many years before the region lives up to its potential as the greenest place to harvest the pricey metal that’s crucial to the country’s transition to electric vehicles.
A company called Lilac Solutions, which has created an ion-exchange technology to separate lithium from a variety of brines, has decided to avoid working with the superheated poisonous brine of the Salton Sea because it’s so difficult to handle. Along with the problems that come from managing a 600-degree liquid, anyone who is trying to extract lithium also has to ensure that these other dangerous materials in the brine don’t escape into the air we breathe.
“There are challenges related to the very high temperature and the materials, including toxic materials, that are dissolved into it,” says David Snydacker, Lilac’s founder and CEO, who is used to working with brines that don’t have the same impurities or heat issues. “Solving those challenges is critical to bringing those projects into production.”
“Saudi Arabia Of Lithium”
Today, most lithium comes from South America and Australia, where it’s obtained by flooding salt flats or through hard-rock mining — processes that often overtax water supplies in areas where that resource is limited, produce residual scraps, harm land fertility and degrade groundwater. But at the Salton Sea, lithium-rich brine is already being pumped to the surface to power 11 geothermal power plants. The new plan is to bolt on one more step: extract lithium and other high-value minerals before sending the stuff back to where it came from, thousands of feet underground.
Advocates say that extracting lithium from the brine will be much more green because it’s a closed-loop procedure powered by carbon-free geothermal energy that completely avoids conventional mining techniques. Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Controlled Thermal and EnergySource Minerals are testing out their own proprietary chemical separation processes, where you pass brine through a filtering stage that pulls out the lithium, while leaving the rest of the toxic chemicals in place. Ideally, the brine is never even exposed to the open air above ground.
“Lithium badly needs new sources and new processes to drag the industry into the 21st century.”
Once scaled up, Lithium Valley could one day supply 600,000 metric tons of lithium annually, according to U.S. government estimates.
“It’s probably among the 10 biggest lithium deposits in the world,” says Michael McKibben, a geologist at the University of California, Riverside, who spends much of his time studying the Salton Sea’s metal-producing potential. He estimates the Salton Sea’s lithium capacity is nearly the size of the world’s largest deposits in Bolivia and Chile combined, at 32 million metric tons.
That wealth of Salton Sea lithium has been dubbed a new gold rush in recent news stories. It’s “what we refer to as the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” Newsom said in a roundtable with President Joe Biden early this year.
To tap into the Salton Sea’s promise, the state has doled out about $13 million in grants to Berkshire Hathaway, Controlled Thermal and EnergySource Minerals for prototype extraction projects over the past five years.
“Lithium badly needs new sources and new processes to drag the industry into the 21st century, and Salton Sea is one of those sources the industry is hoping to be successful,” says Simon Moores, CEO of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, an influential analyst whose outlook for global sources and price trends of raw materials for EV batteries is widely followed by investors.
But despite rosy projections from Controlled Thermal, EnergySource and Berkshire Hathaway Energy to produce a combined 100,000 tons of lithium annually as soon as 2027, getting highly refined lithium from geothermal brine has never been done at an industrial scale.
The level of production Lithium Valley advocates propose “is highly unlikely to impossible” in the next few years because the extraction process is so complex, Moores says. His London-based company, which tracks metals needed by the battery industry, thinks it may take at least a decade to hit the volume they’re touting and instead estimates lithium from Salton Sea brine at best will be 30,000 metric tons by 2030.
“With these things, I find operators and financiers tend to overestimate the short term but underestimate the long term,” Moores says.
“Nobody Has Done This Yet”
As you drive around the Salton Sea, you can see the corrosive power of the underground brine. The superhot stuff, which can eat through steel and cement, quickly rusts the area’s power plants, making them look older and more rundown than they are. The industrial sites, which need continuous renovation and repainting as the brine wears them away, loom like steampunk sculptures out of the desert haze.
In a dusty field next to EnergySource’s future lithium facility, less than a mile from the sea itself, there’s a cluster of dry mud pots that look like miniature volcanoes. These mounds are a byproduct of the subterranean system that the company’s geothermal power plant next door utilizes, caused by an underground buildup of carbon dioxide that pushes to the surface through the water table and soil.
On this plot of land, EnergySource is preparing to start building its lithium processing facility in October, which will be the first in the region. When completed in 2024, it should be able to extract 20,000 metric tons of lithium, pulling it out of the 7,000 gallons of brine that flows out of the connecting power plant every minute.
The refining operation will cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” CEO Eric Spomer tells Forbes, without elaborating on specifics. EnergySource, which received an undisclosed investment amount in May from oil-field services company Schlumberger and lithium-oriented developer TechMet, is currently raising funds necessary to complete it, though Spomer declined to say how much the company still needs.
He agrees that the project is far from a simple undertaking. “Nobody has done this yet,” he says. But his confidence derives from a pilot program the company has been running there since 2016, funded with a $2.5 million grant from the California Energy Commission. Spomer says the pilot has helped “ensure that we have a process that works, produces marketable lithium products, specifically battery-grade lithium hydroxide, and is commercially viable.”
EnergySource pulls lithium from the brine using a proprietary technology it developed called iLiAD that the company says is the industry’s most efficient. Unlike Berkshire Hathaway and Controlled Thermal, EnergySource also plans to extract and sell zinc and manganese drawn from the brine.
“We tend not to make claims unless we are highly confident we can deliver,” Spomer says.
Controlled Thermal CEO Rod Colwell is similarly optimistic. “The recovery of minerals from geothermal brine or even just brine has been going at Dow Chemical for 80 years. It’s nothing new and novel,” says Colwell, whose Imperial County, California-based company is operating its first test well at the aptly named Hell’s Kitchen on the hot, dusty southeast shore of the Salton Sea.
“The only way we’re going to optimize is running it.”
The name harks back to a time when the area was actually an island in the lake, before the water retreated and turned it into a peninsula. In the 1920s, eccentric local entrepreneur Captain Charles E. Davis ran a cafe and dancehall called Hell’s Kitchen on what was then known as Mullett Island.
At the moment, there’s no sign of that colorful past and little to indicate its big future. Controlled Thermal’s site, across from a crumbling old stone house, farm fields and next to an irrigation canal, consists of a single steam tower recently built over a test well and some 10 temporary structures resembling semi-truck trailers that are processing brine from the well. The site looked more impressive late last year when a massive, multistory drilling rig temporarily towered over it.
If all goes well, in about two years the site will feature a high-tech complex with a combined geothermal energy plant and lithium facility resembling one of Musk’s Tesla Gigafactories.
After Controlled Thermal opens a power plant at the site next year, Colwell wants the next phase of the project to be able to produce 25,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate, the refined form battery makers need, with commercial operations starting in 2024. The company intends to steadily expand, adding more geothermal wells to eventually produce up to 75,000 tons a year — an undertaking that will cost “in the billions,” Colwell said, without elaborating.
“The only way we’re going to optimize is running it,” he said, acknowledging there may be snags. “Just assume you’re never going to get it right on paper.”
Berkshire Hathaway Energy, the last of the three Salton Sea lithium producers, is also in the midst of testing out its technology. It recently opened its first lithium extraction test facility in a two-story, khaki-colored industrial building adjacent to one of its geothermal plants. At a 10th the size of a future commercial facility, the facility was funded with $14.9 million from the U.S. Energy Department and $6 million from the California Energy Commission. The company currently has seven times the geothermal power-generation capacity at its 10 Salton Sea plants as the single facility EnergySource is using and will likely be the biggest lithium producer as it ramps up production starting in 2026.
BHE declined to participate in this story. Jonathan Weisgall, vice president of government relations for Berkshire’s energy division and a member of California’s Lithium Valley Commission, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comments on its Salton Sea plans.
California’s lithium rush is the latest source of excitement — and expectation of money and jobs — in a dry, poor part of the state that’s been disappointed by past promising developments.
The Salton Sea is the state’s largest inland body of water, located about an hour southeast of Palm Springs and not far from the annual music festival in Coachella. It was an affordable, family vacation destination from the 1920s through the ‘60s, famous for speed boat races and dotted with motels, diners and campgrounds. At its peak, the “Salton Riviera” even drew more visitors than Yosemite National Park, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. But tourist business faded as its salty water turned toxic from local farms’ chemical runoff. The pollution also decimated the fish population, threatening its role as a major way station for migrating birds.
Today, the remnants of the Salton Sea’s tourist glory days are largely ghost towns, with the exception of a trailer park artists’ colony in Bombay Beach and Slab City, a campsite community near the geothermal fields where residents live off the grid in trailers and semi-permanent homes, sharing a spring-fed community shower. The area’s median household income is $46,222, 40% below the state average, and the poverty rate is 18%. Toxic dust from the lake’s dry playa bed is linked to high rates of asthma, allergies and lung disease for locals, particularly those living near its southern tip where lithium operations will be located.
“Who’s going to be responsible for paying for the unintentional public health consequences five, 10, 20 years down the line?”
Some residents are hopeful that lithium will mean jobs and investment for an area that badly needs them, but there’s concern that increased industrial activity could exacerbate local pollution problems, especially if toxins in the brine are released during the extraction process.
Lilac’s Snydacker notes that pulling out the lithium without releasing the brine’s toxins into the air does raise technical challenges. “You need a way to handle those hazmat issues and put everything back underground,” he says. “If you can’t reinject that material, you don’t have a project.”
“All we hear from the companies is, ‘it’s going to be easy for us to take out the lithium,’” says Patricia Leal-Gutierrez of the lake’s North Shore, who works with local organizations in the Salton Sea region and has lived in the East Coachella Valley all her life. “For many community members, including myself, we know there’s going to be unintentional consequences.”
“Who’s going to be responsible for paying for the unintentional public health consequences five, 10, 20 years down the line?” she said. “Because when we get to that point, it usually is too late to respond, and the burden falls on the community. We must act early, and outline ways to address future unintentional consequences.”
There’s history to that particular concern. Simbol, the first company with plans to pull lithium from Salton Sea’s geothermal brine, failed in 2015 — shortly after it rejected a $325 million purchase offer from Musk’s Tesla the previous year.
Leal-Gutierrez’s sentiments were echoed in a recent opinion piece in The Desert Sun newspaper in late August by two other local women worried about the novelty of pulling lithium from geothermal brine.
“We refuse to be experimental zones for climate change programs that have unproven benefits and unknown environmental impacts, such as lithium extraction,” wrote Cecilia Dora Armenta, a resident of Salton City for 29 years, and Elizabeth Jaime, a mother of two children with asthma. “We are concerned that the profits that will result from lithium development are more important to decision-makers than our health.”
EnergySource’s Spomer says the company is trying to keep locals in the loop, holding public meetings and discussing a recently completed environmental impact report submitted to the state. “Though very few people showed up,” he said. Since then, he said the company has been distributing information packets and is open to holding more events. “We’re happy to show them around and tell them what we’re doing.”
California isn’t the only state with rich lithium potential. Neighboring Nevada has significant deposits near Thacker Pass. But getting it from that source would entail leaching it from clay loaded with the material using an acid. Along with the potential for environmental harm, the project is opposed by local Paiute-Shoshone Tribe members, who consider the region sacred as it was the site of a massacre.
The fact that Salton Sea lithium could avoid the harmful effects of mining and excessive water use is a key reason General Motors wants to work with Controlled Thermal and has invested an undisclosed amount in the company.
The region’s “direct lithium extraction” avoids the ponds used in South America and tailings generated by hard-rock mining, making it “a closed-loop system,” says Timothy Grewe, who leads GM’s electrification strategy and battery cell engineering. “It’s set up to be a much lower cost supply chain.”
Still, the automaker knows there are hurdles. “You gotta go work through the realities of high-volume production,” Grewe says. “How much does it really cost to capitalize direct lithium extraction? What happens when the brine changes and comes out in a different volcano brine?”
His questions aren’t likely to be answered for a few years as production begins to ramp up.
That hasn’t stopped Controlled Thermal from finding other customers: Along with GM, it also has a deal to sell lithium to Stellantis for its EV operations. Colwell also says he’s making frequent trips to Asia to meet with Korean and Japanese battery companies that he hopes will eventually locate cathode production near the Salton Sea region. “It just makes commercial sense and environmental sense,” he says.
So far, the only battery company that says it’s planning to join the lithium operators is Statevolt, a European startup that said in April it will build a sprawling $4 billion plant and source lithium from Controlled Thermal. Statevolt did not respond to a request for details on when that facility might open and how much of its funding has been secured.
“Scaling up to demonstration takes work. Then scaling from demonstration to commercial takes a lot of work.”
But for now, companies like Redwood Materials, which recycles metals from batteries and electronics and is preparing to make lithium cathodes at a new plant in Nevada for EV batteries, have no plans to source lithium from the Salton Sea region. CEO JB Straubel, a Tesla cofounder, declined to comment on his expectations for Salton Sea lithium.
Berkshire’s Weisgall also cautioned about how things will proceed at the Salton Sea in April during a public forum sponsored by UC Riverside. Pulling lithium out of geothermal brine has “been done in the laboratory, but scaling up to demonstration takes work. Then scaling from demonstration to commercial takes a lot of work.”
“It’s not alchemy; the lithium is there,” Weisgall said. “But we’ve got to do this the right way.”