Trillions of dollars worth of lithium could be bubbling up from the ground in the Imperial Valley, which is one of the hottest and poorest areas of California. Lithium ion batteries power everything from cell phones to electric cars, and they store power generated from solar and wind farms when it’s not sunny or windy. Tapping the so-called “white gold” officially began a little over a week ago.
Charles Zukoski, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at USC and host of the podcast series Electric Futures, tells KCRW that the advantage of a lithium ion battery, as opposed to a sodium ion battery, is that it has higher energy density. It’s the best technology currently available for electric cars, he emphasizes.
The Imperial Valley is developing — and could be first in the world to commercialize — a new process called direct extraction of lithium. He explains that it involves pulling the element out of brines from the ground, then pumping the remaining brine back into the ground.
Zukoski says an Australian firm is building a plant in the area that’s expected to extract 20,000-25,000 tons of lithium hydroxide a year — enough for 400,000 vehicles. It’s connected to a 40 megawatt power plant — 11 total are in the area.
“If this technology is commercialized, then this will give us essentially a massive supply of lithium. It could be used for a domestic source of batteries. Right now, the lithium might be mined in South America and in Australia, but it's sent to China, where it's converted to the lithium hydroxide, lithium carbonate. … The vast majority of the batteries are made in China. And the U.S. is very worried about being dependent on external sources of power for vehicles. And so we're trying to develop an internal supply chain.”
However, the direct extraction of lithium comes with environmental downsides. Zukoski says you have to polish the brine before you can extract the lithium, which means pulling out a lot of silica, iron, and other materials from the brine. The polishing procedure is “so the absorbent for the lithium is able to only pull out the lithium and not get a lot of other impurities in the process.”
“When you pull those things out, it creates … the vast majority of it is classified as non-hazardous waste, and it goes into a landfill in the Imperial Valley. Some it has arsenic in it or other heavy metals, and it is a hazardous waste, but that's a very small fraction. So there are environmental hazards associated with that.”
Local residents are worried about the increased dust that comes from all the trucks going back and forth during this process, Zukoski notes. “It's a very poor county, very little investment has gone in, so the roads the trucks are going over are unpaved. And if there's more trucking activity, you'll pick up more dust.”
The extraction will also require water — most will come from the Colorado River, he says. “And so either that water won't go to agriculture, or it won't flow into the Salton Sea, and the Salton Sea is drying up. And that's a big concern in the area because the dried lake shores are a source of dust.”
The dust from the lake contains whatever was in the lake when it was still wet — potentially agricultural runoff, such as herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, Zukoski says, adding that there’s a high rate of respiratory disease in the Imperial Valley around the Salton Sea.
On top of environmental and health concerns, cultural fears exist too. “At the southern end of the Salton Sea, where this geothermal hotspot is, are a series of volcanic buttes and hills. And those are very significant to the Indigenous groups in the area. And the Indigenous groups are very worried about the crowding of their cultural landscape.”
Zukoski notes, “As they did the groundbreaking, a lawyer dropped on the desk an intent to sue to stop the project, saying that the environmental impact process wasn't followed. In other words, the public concerns that were voiced were not dealt with.”
“I am concerned about the lawsuit that was put forward, the concerns of those individuals are real. And this is what our podcast, Electric Futures, was about — was questions of the trade-offs that we as a society face, as we try to move through the energy transition. … But right now, they did break ground. It's very exciting. I mean, truly, this will be a game changer for the Imperial Valley and for the nation if it goes through and is successful.”