Lithium

Kurt Cobain launched himself into rock-and-roll immortality with songs like this one. Angst and anger are part-and-parcel of the Western youth experience! Nirvana hit that “chord” perfectly before the sad demise of their front man in 1994.

The song isn’t, on the surface, about depression, but the singer suggests that it is with his melancholy vocals. And most people think the title is a reference to the lithium salts that have been used for centuries to treat such things as bipolar disorder.

Nowadays lithium salts are in big demand because of their use in batteries. Lithium is the lightest of all metals. It is highly reactive and is not found in nature in metallic form but only in compounds. Lithium-ion batteries use mostly lithium cobalt oxide, lithium iron phosphate, or lithium manganese dioxide as the anode. The electrolytes are organic carbonates with lithium-ion complexes. The familiar rechargeable nickel-cadmium battery is cheaper to make, but Li-ion batteries have a higher energy density and operate over a greater range of temperatures.

The electrification of the world’s vehicle fleets will require an enormous investment in the extraction and production of many materials such as copper, nickel, and cobalt. Lithium is one of those and it is near the top of the list. Right now lithium production is mostly from brines. The so-called ABC sources (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile) are underground saltwater lakes. The ion-rich water is brought to the surface and evaporates in large basins called salars. The salts are then mined and processed. Australia and China also have large lithium resources but those are hard rock mines.

Naturally automakers are interested in securing long-term solutions for their lithium supply. Recently General Motors announced their intention to develop the lithium brines along the Salton Sea in California. GM says they will be EV-only by 2035. To do that they’ll need lots of lithium.

The Salton Sea was formed by accident. Colorado River water overflowed its irrigation canals and flooded the ancient lake bed in 1905. Inflows from the Rio Nuevo added to the mix. Over time the salinity and pollution from agricultural and industrial runoff turned the Sea into a toxic wasteland. The only thing happening there now are the geothermal electricity-generating stations. The Salton Trough is bisected by the San Andreas Fault and the area is home to geysers and lava domes (the Salton Buttes).

GM, in partnership with Australian miner CTR Ltd., hopes to develop the Hell’s Kitchen geothermal brine project as a closed-loop system. They envision getting electricity from the geothermal resource to power the extraction of the brine as well as re-injecting the fluid (minus its lithium carbonate) back into the ground. Here’s a diagram:

https://www.cthermal.com/projects

The communities along the Salton Sea are some of the most impoverished in California. The collapse of the recreation economy decades ago and the on-going air pollution crisis in the region (from toxic evaporites along the shrinking shoreline) are a deadly double-whammy. It would be nice to think that commercial development would benefit locals but that sort of “trickle-down” is often just that—a trickle.

It is estimated that 600,000 tonnes of lithium could be produced annually from Salton Sea brines. The market value of that is on the order of several billion dollars.

That’s a hell of a lot of money. I wonder where it will all go?

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