Future of EV Batteries from CA’s Salton Sea and the Shores of Lake MI

Salton Sea     Image: CTR’s Hell’s Kitchen Deck

New electric vehicle battery capacity is cropping up across the U.S. — places like the Hell’s Kitchen Lithium and Power in California’s Imperial Valley where they are planning on extracting lithium from the Salton Sea, and Ion Park, a “pilot facility” where Ford Motors will eventually produce batteries.  The Hell’s Kitchen site is a geothermal facility that uses Earth’s natural heat to create electricity and produces minerals such as lithium for the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles in the process with no detrimental environmental impacts.  Ion Park is a $185 million battery lab right outside Detroit that is a step toward Ford manufacturing its own battery cells, which will help it compete globally.

Why This Matters:  With EV sales expected to increase, particularly given the Biden Administration’s emphasis on their development, lithium is in such high demand that experts refer to it as “white gold.” Companies are buying the raw materials needed to avoid a shortage in the coming years as demand grows.  China is the U.S.’ main supplier of lithium, but mining it in other parts of the world is highly destructive — it has to be extracted from hard rocks.  For the U.S. automakers to remain competitive, these new efforts are critical.

Salton Sea’s Hell’s Kitchen

The Hell’s Kitchen plant, run by the Australian company Controlled Thermal Resources, will eventually create enough geothermal energy to power 1.1 million homes and at the same time extract lithium from the geothermal brine under the ground.  “The sea has been receding for up to about 20-40 yards a month in the shallow lands down here,” CEO Rod Colwell explained to NPR. As we have written, the drying up of the lake has created a public health issue by exposing nearby communities to toxic dust rising from its surface. But, as Colwell explains, “it’s been exposing some of the best-known lithium and geothermal resources on the planet. It’s a really interesting crossroads in time.”  There are many big-name investors in lithium projects in the region like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, NPR reports.

One of the reasons why is that geothermal lithium is environmentally benign and produces very few carbon emissions.  “It’s 100% green,” Colwell says.  Other types of lithium are on the other end of the spectrum — extracted from hard rock in places like Canada and Australia. And in South American countries such as Chile and Argentina, it’s concentrated through large evaporation ponds that take up lots of water, but to get it out requires pumping the groundwater out with it and that’s displacing farmers and llama herders in those countries.

Ford Wants To Accelerate Battery Technology

CNBC reported that the Ion Lab facility is intended to accelerate the development of the technologies as the company plans to “eventually manufacture” new battery cells and batteries, according to Hau Thai-Tang, Ford’s chief product platform and operations officer.  Currently, Ford purchases cells from suppliers such as South Korea-based SK Innovation. Thai-Tang told reporters during a media briefing, “It’s really for us to develop that expertise and competency in-house, and give us that flexibility in the future.”  The company wants to develop the next generation of lithium-ion batteries — making them safer and better than the cells on the market now.  Ford intends to invest  $22 billion into vehicle electrification between 2016 and 2025.

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