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DOE Lab Leads Investigation To Better Understand Geothermal Lithium Resources

In a new project sponsored and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Geothermal Technologies Office, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) will work with scientists from the University of California (UC), Riverside, and Geologica Geothermal Group, Inc., to evaluate the lithium in the geothermal field beneath California’s Salton Sea in Southern California. 

The need for the project results from a recent push by California and other states to expand the adoption of electric vehicles, which increases demand for more batteries, and the lithium needed to make those batteries.  

According to LBNL, the Salton Sea potentially holds enough lithium to meet all of the country’s domestic battery needs. Researchers hope to answer how much of the lithium can be extracted from the sea in a sustainable way.

There are currently 11 commercial plants at the Salton Sea producing geothermal energy, a renewable form of energy, in which the heat from hot fluids pumped up from the underground are converted to electricity.  

The project is the first extensive scientific effort to outline California’s “Lithium Valley” and get a thorough understanding of the sea’s mineral-rich underground geothermal system. 

LBNL and its partners will use an electron microscope and other advanced analytical tools to discover the mineral sources of lithium and its additional benefits. 

The project team will also research potential environmental impacts to assess how much water and chemical usage is needed for lithium extraction and air quality during the extraction process. 

DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Office says the project will provide critical insights about the subsurface that will help secure a domestic lithium supply chain using the most environmentally responsible and data-driven pathway. 

Various companies have kicked off pilot operations at the Salton Sea to extract lithium, including Berkshire Hathaway Energy, a holding company, and Controlled Thermal Resources, a lithium resource and renewable energy company. LBNL and UC Riverside will use data from the companies active in the area and field data from the state of California’s Geologic Energy Management databases.

The project’s vision is for the lithium from the geothermal field beneath the Salton Sea to one day form the foundation for a new domestic battery industry in the U.S.