A company out of California last Wednesday announced that it would undertake commercial operations to capture lithium from geothermal energy plants. This, according to them, would most likely make the United States the top exporter of lithium in the world.
The company is Simbol Materials and would locate their lithium extraction facility near the Salton Sea in the Imperial Valley of California. Aside from lithium, the facility also would extract manganese and zinc. None of the planned extracted material would include rare earth elements, which have only be found in large quantities in China. Despite such limitations, lithium ranks as one of the energy critical elements that are deemed crucial for the energy needs of the future.
Lithium is an important element in the creation of electric car batteries. Manganese is also used as battery material as well as important in steel and metal production. Currently, the United States imports most of its lithium needs and all of its manganese requirements.
The company’s design for the process is through attachment with an existing geothermal plant. When the plant generates electricity through steam generated from pumped hot water from drilled holes in the ground. The steam drives turbines and the hot water is pumped back into the ground hole. This underground water is essentially a strong composite of brine with around thirty percent are dissolved salts.
These dissolved salts, according to Luka Erceg, Simbol’s Chief Executive Officer, are rich in these energy critical elements. He said, ““When we looked into the brine resource, what we found was not only lithium, but manganese, zinc and about half the periodic table of the elements.” At this point though, the economically viable elements are lithium, manganese and zinc.
The Simbol plant would process 5,000 to 6,000 gallons of water per minute, and through a filtration process, would be able to extract about 10 to 20 gallons of salt. These salts would then be refined through an extraction process that is 93 percent efficient. This cost effective way can produce much of the lithium requirements of the United States and even allow for production to export to other countries.
Currently, Chile, Australia, China and Argentina are the major producers of lithium. This element is used in metallurgy, pharmaceuticals and now with the increased focus on electric vehicle production, in lithium ion batteries. Be it for cellular phones or the latest electric vehicle model, the lithium contained in their batteries may soon come from the Salton Sea Brine through the efforts of Simbol Materials, Inc.