Lithium is one of the foundational elements of our modern world, and a billionaire-backed startup is trying to dig it up from beneath the dead Salton Sea. Could this new company finally beat the odds in California’s “graveyard for lithium extraction”?
That’s how founder David Snydacker characterizes the Imperial Valley, directly east of San Diego along the very southern edge of California. Snydacker’s group Lilac Solutions just received $20 million in funding from a venture capital firm specializing in energy, with marquee investors Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill Gates.
Why would Snydacker want to, well, dig up the graveyard? He almost didn’t.
“Snydacker was hesitant at first to go anywhere near the Salton Sea geothermal area because of the history of failed lithium projects,” the Los Angeles Times reports.
He says the turning point was when the technology he’d developed performed really well with all different brines—saltwaters of different concentrations and mixes to resemble different sea and ocean environments.
Lithium is found dissolved in saltwater sources around the world, meaning the typical way to extract it is like how sea salt companies extract their product: huge ponds that evaporate over time, leaving solid matter behind. It works just okay, and it’s very slow.
To complicate things, the Salton Sea itself is already rapidly evaporating: “The total evaporation from the Salton Sea is approximately 1,300,000 acre feet of water per year. The total volume of water in the Salton Sea is approximately 7.5 million acre feet,” the Salton Sea Authority explains.
New salt continues to flow in every year, and the amount only increases. The salt content is so high that virtually all life has been extinguished in the lake (which the “sea” technically is), making the site indirectly ideal for lithium extraction or any other invasive technical project.
The real chemical draw for Lilac, and the legions of failed startups that preceded it, is a series of mud pot volcanoes that are one of the richest potential sources of geothermal energy in the world.
It’s here, deep underground, where lithium is dissolved in the superheated mix. Because of the tantalizing combo of energy source and lithium source, Lilac has partnered with an Australia-based company called Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR). Australia has invested heavily in its geothermal energy. This isn’t CTR’s first try at the Imperial Valley, where at least one deal with a previous extraction partner has fallen through in recent years.
This time, CTR is back with new partner Lilac, and the technology is allegedly more developed and reliable. CTR says that instead of traditional evaporation ponds, its extraction is modular and fast—bewitching keywords for any venture capital energy project. It seems to be a continuous-flow pot filled of “ion exchange beads,” where hydrochloric acid knocks lithium chloride free from the naturally occurring lithium carbonate found in brine.
The partner companies envision a geothermal energy plant where lithium is extracted as part of the normal energy production of the plant. Instead of adding lithium extraction as an afterthought, they’ll build with it in mind from the beginning, they say. And with plans to deliver over 17,000 tons of extracted lithium in first operating year 2023, they’re powerful players.