Geothermal energy may not have a huge place in the alternative energy market of the Northwest, but it’s big business near the Salton Sea in California. And one developer there is trying to double returns by extracting lithium from geothermal brine — which could then be used in electric car batteries.
The New York Times reported this week that Simbol Materials will break ground on its lithium extraction facility this August.
Here’s essentially how it works: Simbol borrows hot water pulled out of the ground at a nearby geothermal plant, extracts lithium and other minerals from the briny solution once it cools, and then returns the excess water to the ground.
The catch is that only Simbol truly knows how this process works. The company has kept its facility shrouded in secrecy to prevent leaking trade secrets, as The Desert Sun reports:
“To get up close to the plant, you have to sign a confidentiality form promising not to write or talk about anything you see there.
“All other visitors, reporters included, must stay a company-approved 15-20 feet away from the facility.”
If Simbol proves able to extract high-grade lithium, that in turn can be used in electric car batteries. Demand for the lithium should be high soon, too, thanks in no small part to a $5 billion battery facility that electric car maker Tesla plans to open in 2017, according to the Times.
As a kind of environmental bonus round, county officials near the Salton Sea see Simbol’s potential revenue as a way to fund restoration projects for the receding lake.
Simbol’s success or failure likely depends on competition from other developers pitching similar technology, the extent of the lithium supply under the Salton Sea and U.S. business relationships with established exporters of the mineral from South America and Australia.
— Ryan Haas
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