A lower environmental impact than traditional lithium mining.
July 19, 2021 9:52 PM   Subscribe

GM Will Suck Lithium From the Salton Sea to Make Batteries [Autoweek] "Controlled Thermal Resources will pump hot, salty water from deep below the Salton Sea and extract the lithium from it, along with clean thermo energy at the same time. Cleaner water goes back into the Salton Sea and the ground beneath it. It’s a win-win."

"You might even add another win in there when you consider the California Energy Commission’s estimate that the Salton Sea area could produce 600,000 tons of lithium per year, which is amazing since the entire world’s industry produced a mere 85,000 tons of lithium in all of 2019."
posted by hippybear (34 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
Maybe, but the Atacama brines have 0.14% lithium content and the Salton Sea brines have 0.027%.

Having to concentrate up lithium from that low value is going to hurt the economics.

If the prices get high enough to justify using the Salton Sea, then there's a heap of other brine projects that'll be more profitable in places like NZ, Iceland, & Argentina.

And if prices get that high then there's a heap of hard rock mining projects that'll be more profitable in places like China, Chile, and Australia.
posted by happyinmotion at 10:49 PM on July 19 [9 favorites]


And if prices get that high then there's a heap of hard rock mining projects that'll be more profitable in places like China, Chile, and Australia.

And Thacker Pass in Nevada.
posted by NoThisIsPatrick at 10:50 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


Why is it that any time I hear someone describe a resource-extracting activity as 'win-win', there's a bigger pile of people who are gonna lose

Anyway interesting article, thanks for the post.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 11:24 PM on July 19 [19 favorites]


Probably not...

Sounds cool as a VC pitch but, unintended consequences and all that.
posted by Windopaene at 11:35 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


How can they extract such a small amount of lithium from brine in an efficient way? You extract salt from brine by evaporation, but surely that's not practical here.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:58 PM on July 19


my thought sequence
0) maybe GM has good intentions and is bad at math. (false and true)
1) maybe GM is running a scam or getting a subsidy to do this
2) Maybe GM plans to make a complete mess of this to harm the Lithium and electric car reputations as part of their multidecadal effort to prevent their customers from getting better or fuel efficient or safe or environmentally less polluting or reliable cars.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 12:19 AM on July 20 [19 favorites]


"in an efficient way" is the key question. There are 20 million tonnes of gold in the ocean; it just can't be accessed cost-effectively at current gold prices. There is hard rock [Spodumene] potential with Li20 at 1% just round the corner from our gaff in Ireland. A Chinese+Canadian consortium invested US$2million in feasibility studies and core samples 2014-2018. I set a student to look at lithium in the local groundwater; among other things to create a base-line for comparisons with post-extraction. We got to talk to the consulting engineer as he was packing up to go home. He gave an interesting insight in the economics of prospecting: lots of profitless graft with the occasional payola. But he personally got a salary and expenses on the regular.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:34 AM on July 20 [15 favorites]


there are 20 million tonnes of gold in the ocean; it just can't be accessed cost-effectively at current gold prices.
There are also, as per Wikipedia, 230 billion tons of lithium dissolved in the seas of the world (lithium is the world's 25th most abundant element). So - the 600,000 tons GM think they can suck out of the Salton sea - may be large by global annual production standards - but it is not at all the same as having the extracted, refined lithium in a battery and ready to go. Finding lithium in abundance is not the hard part - extracting it economically is.

(Tesla's patent, covering the use of table salt to extract lithium from ore more efficiently, may be one to watch. In general anybody who can come up with a lot of lithium in the next couple of decades is going to do very well for themselves. The mining industry hasn't really had that much pressure to innovate in the pas; now it very much does.)
posted by rongorongo at 1:31 AM on July 20 [3 favorites]


From TFA:
“CTR’s lithium resource at the Salton Sea in California is one of the largest known lithium brine resources in North America,” CTR said in a release. “The integration of direct lithium extraction with renewable geothermal energy offers the highest sustainability credentials available today. CTR’s closed-loop, direct lithium extraction process utilizes renewable power and steam—significantly reducing the time to produce battery-grade lithium products and eliminating the need for overseas processing. CTR’s operations will have a minimal physical footprint and a near-zero carbon footprint. The brine, after lithium extraction, is returned to the geothermal reservoir deep within the earth.”
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:25 AM on July 20 [5 favorites]


TFA doesn't tell us much though, does it? Except that they plan to use geothermal power. I suppose you could use your geothermal operation to produce live steam, with the benefit of concentrating the brine down to a level you can do something with, but that sounds a bit contingent to me; at least when you compare it to operations where they just pick up the ore in scoops.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:37 AM on July 20


Yes, the whole point of the pitch is that the geothermal energy they extract changes the economics of the operation. Whether it pans out or is ultimately feasible, up for discussion, but best to consider the actual proposal here.

Thanks for highlighting that, snuffleupagus.
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:42 AM on July 20 [5 favorites]


But is that brine also radioactive, like it is in hydrofracking?

https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/oil-gas-fracking-radioactive-investigation-937389/
posted by subdee at 3:46 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Getting the lithium out of the brine is a tricky thing. You can brute-force it with evaporation but there's several technologies under R&D that have plenty of potential: ion sieving with nanoporous materials, selective ion exchange sorbents, solvents.

"Techno-Economic Analysis of Lithium Extraction from Geothermal Brines" from NREL is my go-to reference for where these technologies are at.
posted by happyinmotion at 3:54 AM on July 20 [8 favorites]


If we insist on growing every year, even if its green growth. We will eventually pave the entire earth and destroy our environment just the same as we would if we keep doing things the way we have been.

Continuing to mine resources for 2% growth in GDP every year still destroys the earth. At that growth rate the economy doubles every 20 years. Imagine how hard it will be to reduce carbon emissions if we insist on doubling the entire project every 20 years.

Switching to electric cars still brings along with it all the other problems with cars, and car companies plans to grow and expand into new markets every year will only make it worse. We need to start talking about De-growth, and eventually as close to steady state economy as we can.

Capitalism only works with constant growth, but constant growth is incompatible with a healthy environment, so we really do need to pick, the planet, or the current economy.
posted by stilgar at 5:26 AM on July 20 [16 favorites]


OTOH, if we don't have economic growth, we have zero-sum economics, where for me to win, someone else must lose by an equivalent amount. And so, peaceful trading and competition gets replaced by open warfare.
posted by acb at 6:01 AM on July 20 [7 favorites]


There are some big time venture capitalists investing in this, Gates, Bezos & Bloomberg.

Salton Sea is a weird place. Physics Girl had a cool video recently about a moving mud pot there that was threatening a highway and a railroad.
posted by Bee'sWing at 6:12 AM on July 20 [3 favorites]


Continuing to mine resources for 2% growth in GDP every year still destroys the earth. At that growth rate the economy doubles every 20 years.

35 years, and that's not how gdp works. You can increase gdp without using any more resources. Realistically, you'd expect an increase of gdp to coincide with some increase in resource use, but they can be totally out of scale with each other.

Simple half-assed example: you can turn a piece of a silicon wafer into six 8086 chips, or you can turn it into one 3400G apu with thousands of times more computing capacity.*

The hard limits to really long-term economic growth are much more likely to be energy use and disposal of waste heat than they are physical resource use.

*If you really want to be more precise, you could take the same pile of resources and turn it into six 8086 chips and some waste that 8086s don't use, or one 3400G and some waste that a 3400G doesn't use. The second is a much more productive use of the same pile of resources.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:41 AM on July 20 [5 favorites]




OTOH, if we don't have economic growth, we have zero-sum economics, where for me to win, someone else must lose by an equivalent amount. And so, peaceful trading and competition gets replaced by open warfare.

No, we would have a steady state economy.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 7:19 AM on July 20 [4 favorites]


the Salton Sea area could produce 600,000 tons of lithium per year,

For how many years?

zero-sum economics, where for me to win, someone else must lose by an equivalent amount

Not necessarily. Back in grade school, I'll trade you a bag of Doritos for a Hostess Ho-Ho is considered win win. The principle scales up.
posted by BWA at 7:22 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Capitalism only works with constant growth, but constant growth is incompatible with a healthy environment

That's why a good thing to try is to put prices on a healthy environment.
posted by storybored at 7:24 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Continuing to mine resources for 2% growth in GDP every year still destroys the earth.

Thus the corporate space race, prominently on display this morning.

All the hullabaloo about tourism and Mars colonies strikes me as this eras Epcot-center futurism that will age about as well. Off planet settlement that is anything but miserable remains a long way off.

The real game is resource extraction, and that governments are no longer able to do it as national and international efforts doesn’t bode well for the nation-state system, which may sound good until you consider what the reign of hereditary Space Lord Bezos III might be like.

Either way, if this project helps us do less damage to the only livable spaceship humanity has, that’s good. Also if it helps reverse the salinization and etc of the Salton Sea, which is its own environmental and industrial tragedy.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:40 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]


To add, perpetual economic growth is a physical impossibility.

The upshot is that at a 2.3% growth rate (conveniently chosen to represent a 10× increase every century), we would reach boiling temperature in about 400 years. [...] At that 2.3% growth rate, we would be using energy at a rate corresponding to the total solar input striking Earth in a little over 400 years. We would consume something comparable to the entire sun in 1400 years from now. By 2500 years, we would use energy at the rate of the entire Milky Way galaxy.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 7:48 AM on July 20 [4 favorites]


My god. If we can find a way to harness smugness as an energy source, that blog post may well be what finally sends humanity to the stars.
posted by howfar at 9:37 AM on July 20 [5 favorites]


"Hot, salty water" is quite a phrase.
posted by dbx at 10:16 AM on July 20


Not much of a cocktail, though.
posted by box at 11:55 AM on July 20 [4 favorites]


There doesn't seem to be any effective recycling of lithium. People buy tons of rechargeable screwdrivers, speakers, and then phones, laptops, electric cars, etc. How is recycling not profitable and desirable and being done?

When I moved in to my house there'd been a previous tenant who was a builder. I found 3 cordless screwdrivers that had been discarded in the adjacent lot. I'm willing to bet very few electronics batteries are disposed of other than pitching them into the trash. Makes no sense to me.
posted by theora55 at 6:31 PM on July 20 [5 favorites]


There doesn't seem to be any effective recycling of lithium. People buy tons of rechargeable screwdrivers, speakers, and then phones, laptops, electric cars, etc. How is recycling not profitable and desirable and being done?

This video ,from Helen Czerski of Fully Charged , looks at the challenges and issues surrounding electric vehicle battery recycling - based on interviews with a German company which is doing just that. Taking apart lithium ion batteries to allow recycling presents a number of physical and chemical challenges - and potential dangers. For batteries of any particular type - you need a production line which is specifically geared for dealing with that type of battery. The happy news is that recycling should be cheaper than mining, as a way of getting back the key materials to make new batteries. (Right at this point, they show a pie chart showing the number and relative quantities of what they are able to recycle: Lithium itself is only about 2% of the total - but there is a wide range of useful other stuff)
posted by rongorongo at 11:27 PM on July 20 [3 favorites]


theora55: electronics batteries are disposed of . . . pitching them into the trash. Makes no sense to me.
Battery grade lithium carbonate sells at $8,000/tonne. A cordless battery weighs 0.75kg = 1½lb of which 7% is "lithium". That's 40c US of Battery grade lithium carbonate physically and chemically gunked up with cobalt, manganese, graphite . . . YMMV but it's not worth my time for such a small reward. Also "metastable Li polymers" are prone to decompose exothermically - so I wouldn't store the waiting-to-process batteries in the utility room. On preview, defer to rongorongo.
Looks like it's more fun stripping plastic off electrical wire: you get pure copper [$9400/tonne] with a utility knife.
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:41 PM on July 20 [3 favorites]


I'm willing to bet very few electronics batteries are disposed of other than pitching them into the trash. Makes no sense to me.

About half of local authorities in the UK offer kerbside collection of small electronics and batteries. All places selling batteries also collect used ones.
posted by ambrosen at 11:48 AM on July 21


unintended consequences and all that

I believe that might be the Salton sea's motto.

Apologies for the snarkiness, I'm in a salty mood this evening
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 10:00 PM on July 21


Considering it started out as an extension of the Gulf of California but then ended up landlocked due to silt accumulation and got all nasty but then accidentally refilled by humans trying to tame the Colorado in the early 1900s and then became a lake resort but that got all nasty and now we're left with this... thing...

There's actually a really interesting documentary about people living at the Salton Sea, Plagues And Pleasures On The Salton Sea, which I've seen once on purpose and at least twice since then by accident, and it's an interesting document of that particular unintended consequence engine.
posted by hippybear at 10:14 PM on July 21


Every so often I check for an obit of Hunky Daddy (Laszlo Oros). He'd be in his early 80s by now.

The only Hungarian restaurant I'm aware of surviving in SoCal is also there. George's Picasso, the last outpost of one of a bygone LA's most prolific restaurant chefs (including of the Velvet Turtle).
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:38 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


And Thacker Pass in Nevada.

When I first saw this post, I was hopeful about the possibilities. I want Li to be available for the sake of electrification and decarbonization. But I don't want that to run roughshod over Native interests. Native groups oppose Lithium Nevada Corp's proposed mine in Thacker Pass.
posted by Jpfed at 9:06 PM on July 26


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