Companies investing in California lithium want to power the United States
IMPERIAL COUNTY, Calif. — The United States is facing a supply chain crisis over the resource powering our cell phones, laptops and electric cars. Producing about 1% of lithium domestically, America depends on countries like China for the silvery-white metal.
With known deposits on US soil, big companies are betting on a California region becoming known as a gold mine for lithium.
“We’re almost like heaven when it comes to lithium mining,” Imperial County Supervisor Jesus Eduardo Escobar said. here in Imperial County. And that doesn’t include value-added services, manufacturing services, that trickle-down effect of having employees working here in Imperial County.
A frontier community in southeastern California, the Imperial Valley has long relied on agriculture to sustain its economy.
“Most of our younger generation don’t have that opportunity to come back because there’s really no industry here,” Escobar said. “Back in the 1950s and 60s, the Salton Sea was considered a vacation spot by the whole world, in fact, it was the mecca of Hollywood.
Today, the Salton Sea is an abandoned wasteland. Contaminated by agricultural runoff, the evaporating sea exposes residents to toxic dust.
Escobar believes economic salvation lies within the county lines, thousands of feet underground.
With around 15 million metric tons of lithium, scientists believe this untapped renewable resource could meet a third of global demand.
“I was studying lithium before lithium became cool,” says Bill Tong, vice provost at San Diego State University (SDSU) and professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
To be independent, he says the United States must have its own source of lithium in the country.
“And the potential market is huge,” Tong said.
He says the valley has a super power to pull her out of the ground in a sustainable way.
Typically mixed with rock, Imperial County’s lithium deposits are found in hot fluids at depth. This hot brine is already pumped to the surface and converted into energy by geothermal power plants.
“Combining geothermal mining and lithium mining into one process. That’s why I like to say it kills two birds with one stone,” Tong said. “And then it doesn’t harm the environment as much as old-fashioned mining.”
Once the lithium has been extracted, the hot brine is reinjected into the ground.
As private companies spend millions on technologies to remove lithium from brine, the university is training a new generation of scientists for industry at its Imperial Valley campus.
“It’s still being developed, it’s still being optimized,” Tong said. “We’ve been around for 60 years and we’re ready to help with all science and technology and skilled labor.”
The federal government is investing millions in securing a national supply chain for lithium and other minerals, saying it’s a matter of national security.
However, some proposals are rejected.
An open-pit mining project in Nevada has sparked protests from ranchers, environmentalists and Native American tribes, concerned about water use and the protection of sacred lands.
But with double-digit unemployment rates in Imperial County, the region is embracing the “white gold” rush. Proponents say it could create hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs in the area.
“This is our asset, and we will work hard to ensure that our residents fully understand and fully benefit from what God has given us.”