CRITICAL MINERALSCalifornia Mining Firms Seek to Clean Up Lithium's Production Footprint

By Paul Krantz

Published 11 August 2022

Three large mining projects based in California’s “Lithium Valley” aim to recover lithium with minimal environmental impacts. They have the potential to simplify the global lithium supply chain.

About 200 miles (321 kilometers) east of Los Angeles lies the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake by area. It was once a recreation destination and home to a highly productive fishery, but in recent decades the lake has begun to dry up. Now the region has become famous for its most valuable mineral resource — lithium.

Until a decade ago, lithium was mainly used for glass and ceramic production. Now, roughly 70% of lithium is used for batteries. As electric vehicles continue to gain popularity, global lithium demand is skyrocketing.

Last year, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring half of all new cars sold in the United States in 2030 to be zero-emission electric vehicles (EVs). This was seen as a bold step toward reducing carbon emissions, but critics point out that the US isn’t prepared to manufacture electric vehicles at that level. A critical limiting factor is that the US produces very little lithium domestically.

Similarly, the European Parliament approved a mandate that all new car sales need to be zero-emission EVs by 2035. But Europe also depends heavily on imports to meet its lithium demand.

Access to a steady supply of lithium is pivotal for the US’s and Europe’s e-mobility transition, which is why the Salton Sea’s mineral resources have suddenly gained attention.

Top Lithium Brine Deposit
As the edges of the Salton Sea recede, pools of salty, lithium-rich brine are left below ground. In this way the death of the Salton Sea, which is being caused partly by drought conditions worsened by climate change, is becoming part of the solution for mitigating climate change.

Michael McKibben, a geochemist and research professor at University of California Riverside, leads a study analyzing lithium resources in the area.

I’ve taken both a conservative approach and an optimistic approach to estimating the amount of lithium,” McKibben told DW. “It’s somewhere between 1 and 6 million metric tons of dissolved lithium metal in the brines.” (Or a lithium carbonate equivalent of 5 to 32 million metric tons.)

According to McKibben, that makes this area one of the top lithium brine deposits in the world.

Three companies are racing to tap into this immense lithium resource. If their projects succeed, they will establish a method for extracting lithium without the negative impacts of conventional lithium mining.