A US Department of Energy (DoE) analysis of the Salton Sea and surrounding environs in Southern California found that lithium production could reach 3.4 million tonnes of the mineral essential for batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage.
The resource would be enough lithium to supply batteries for over 375 million electric vehicles (EVs), more than total number of internal combustion cars and trucks currently on US roads, according to the analysis by DoE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“Lithium is vital to decarbonising the economy and meeting President Biden’s goals of 50% electric vehicle adoption by 2030,” said Jeff Marootian, principal deputy assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
“This report confirms the once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a domestic lithium industry at home while also expanding clean, flexible electricity generation.”
The Biden administration launched the National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries in June of 2021 aimed at building a domestic lithium battery manufacturing supply chain through the Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries (FCAB).
The surge in demand for lithium batteries is expected to continue throughout the decade, mostly spurred by EV sales as well as for power storage systems to stabilise grids amid widespread renewable energy deployment.
A report by the Solar Energy Industries Association found some 90% of lithium batteries will likely go to powering EVs, which could impact deployment of battery electric storage systems (BESS), for which US demand is expected to rise six-fold by decade's end.
The US is already the world’s second largest producer of lithium batteries, but accounts for only 6.2% of production in 2022, trailing global leader China with nearly 80% of total output, according to data analytics source Statista.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that China currently has some 1.2TWh of lithium battery manufacturing capacity, compared to US’ 110GWh.
Global manufacturing capacity is expected to rise to 6.79TWh by 2030, with China still far and away the leader at 4.65TWh, followed by the US at 1.03TWh.
The DoE study was done at the Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area (KGRA), about 164 miles (263km) southeast of Los Angeles.
KGRA already has some 400MW of installed geothermal power generation capacity with the potential for up to 2.95GW.
Concurrent geothermal power production and mineral extraction could enable the US “to meet or exceed global lithium demand for decades”, DoE said.
While Chile has the largest known lithium reserves which the US Geological Survey estimates at 9.3 million tonnes, the Salton Sea region “is believed to have the highest concentration of lithium contained in geothermal brines in the world”, according to the study.
Research consultancy Atlas Public Policy sees the US on track to sell 1.3-1.4 million EVs in 2023, reaching a record 9% of the total new car sales.
Stellantis, parent of US automaker Chrysler, announced a $100m investment in Controlled Thermal Resources' Salton Sea-based facility to produce lithium through direct lithium extraction (DLE) technology.
Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has also spent millions of dollars on DLE technology in the same region but without success.
Lithium production could drive economic growth in California's Imperial Valley, where average incomes are half the state average and unemployment sits at over 15%, compared to national rate of 3.9%.