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Lithium under a California lake could help U.S. gain energy autonomy

The ingredient crucial to electric car batteries is found in the brine of an aquifer under the Salton Sea, a once-busy recreation spot that fell into decay because of toxic runoff.

NILAND, Calif. — Deep in the Southern California desert, a massive drill rig taps into what could be the energy of the future. 

Temperatures in the region can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and residents live under the threat of toxic dust caused by decades of agricultural runoff depositing chemicals into the Salton Sea, a saltwater lake. 

But in the brine of an aquifer under the lake lies lithium, a key ingredient for electric vehicle batteries, and the billion-dollar drilling project promises to not only transform an impoverished region, but also help the United States gain energy independence.

A geothermal power station along the coast of the Salton Sea near Calipatria, Calif., on Dec. 15, 2021.
Vapor rises from a geothermal power station along the Salton Sea near Calipatria, Calif., on Dec. 15.Roby Beck / AFP - Getty Images

“You can bring that brine to the surface" said Jim Turner, chief operating officer for Controlled Thermal Resources, the company conducting the project. "You have a lot of energy in the form of heat that you can use to do work.”

Geothermal energy production has been around for years, but this effort will double dip by extracting lithium from the brine. Much of the lithium used today comes from Australia and South America and is shipped to Asia, where it's refined and used in batteries, which are mostly made in China. 

With automakers shifting to electric vehicles, lithium could become the “white gold” of the future, and extracting it in California could reduce or even eliminate U.S. dependency on Chinese production, Turner and other experts say.  

The Controlled Thermal Resources drilling rig in Calipatria, Calif.
The Controlled Thermal Resources drilling rig in Calipatria, Calif. Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images

“It will be the largest lithium production in the U.S., and it may end up being the largest lithium production facility globally,” Turner said.

Currently, 10 geothermal plants and two other lithium extraction projects are operating at the Salton Sea, according to the Imperial Irrigation District.

The lake formed in 1905 when the Colorado River overflowed and flooded a hot basin, known as the Salton Sink, over a two-year period. In the 1950s, it thrived as a tourist destination, drawing celebrity visitors, including Frank Sinatra. Today, the resorts and marinas are long gone, and desert winds carry toxic dust from agricultural chemicals into the lake, about 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Although the project could bring thousands of jobs to the area, which has the highest unemployment rate in the state at 17 percent, some locals want to know more about the plans before wholeheartedly supporting it.       

“I don’t know much,” said Ruben Hernandez, who owns the Buckshot Deli and Diner near the extraction site. “They say they are going to bring a big plant.”

Like many, he said he doesn’t understand the extraction process. But if it brings prosperity to a region where 22 percent of residents live in poverty, he's all for it.

“Well, they need more, more jobs,” Hernandez said. “If the revenues come to the town, it will be good for the people” 

Ruben Hernandez, owner of the Buckshot Deli and Diner.
Ruben Hernandez, owner of the Buckshot Deli and Diner. Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images

 But he also worries the project will create more pollution.

“A lot of people are like, especially the kids and old people, getting asthma,” Hernandez said. “You know, asthma, allergies, all that stuff.”

Michael McKibben, an associate professor emeritus in geology at the University of California, Riverside, said the process is "amazingly clean." 

“In Australia and China, they’re mainly mining hard rock lithium, so they have to have open pit mines where they blast rock with dynamite, and they have to crush that rock," he said. "This method of producing lithium is really amazingly clean because the brine’s already been brought to the surface. It’s already having the steam taken out of it to run turbines and make electricity.”

The Imperial Irrigation District will also collect taxes on the extraction that can be used to invest in the region's water needs.

CORRECTION (Jan. 19, 1:54 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated where the brine is located. It’s in an aquifer under the Salton Sea, not in the lake itself.