The dream of building a car that runs on water could soon be a reality, just not the one you might have expected. A California company is hoping to supply 20% of the world’s lithium by 2020 with an ingenious plan to produce this material used in the batteries that power most electric cars. Simbol Materials says it wants to build a plant in the Salton Sea near Imperial Valley, California, to extract lithium from the salt water brine that flows up from geo-thermal power generators. The salt water extraction process was originally conceived at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) with funds from a state grant, while Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago adapted it to be used with geothermal fluids.
“Geothermal brine is brought up from the ground to produce electricity,” says Corrie Clark, a spokesperson for the Argonne National Laboratory. “The fluid would normally be re-injected back into the reservoir. For mineral extraction, the fluid is first diverted and sent through a series of processes to ultimately extract the lithium and any other desired minerals present in the fluid.”
Today, battery companies like A123 Systems buy most of their lithium from foreign countries, including Chile, Australia and China. According to the Argonne lab, 43% of lithium currently used in the US is imported. The Simbol plant could shift much of that lithium production to the U.S. – a critical development as lithium demand is set to double in the next decade with growth in electric car production.
“The Simbol Materials process appears to be a breakthrough extraction method for creating this critical component to current generation batteries,” says analyst Rob Enderle, who says the plant will benefit from the existing ecosystem in the Salton Sea, which is like a natural lithium lab. The lithium produced in countries like Chile benefit from near constant sunlight that causes quick evaporation, making it easy to mine.
U.S. automakers are interested in any new techniques that could produce lithium at a lower cost. Today, the massive lithium-ion batteries used in cars like the Chevy Volt and Ford Focus Electric are the prime culprit in making the $40,000 compacts so expensive. If producers like Simbol are successful, the price of EVs could drop dramatically.
“In less than 100 years, we know that all vehicles will be electrified,” says Ted Miller, the Ford Senior Manager of Energy Storage Strategy and Research, who says lithium will be in higher demand over the next few decades and the US will have to look to alternative methods to generate the material.
Miller says there are clear benefits to the salt water extraction method – that the geothermal plants themselves are good for the environment, since the heat occurs naturally underground. He does question how the extraction process will work at a larger scale. Miller first discussed the new approach to lithium extraction back in 2008 and is interested to see how Simbol advances the process.
“The key is to demonstrate how the materials can be extracted in a responsible way,” he says. “The challenge is to see how the post-processing facilities can be competitive with current lithium production methods.” Clark agreed, saying the Imperial Valley plant benefits from a high-concentration of brine in the Salton Sea, but that other geothermal plants do not generate as much brine.
“It isn't clear if this process can be economically expanded to other geothermal fields due to differing chemical compositions of the fluids,” says Clark. But he adds that “depending upon price competitiveness, co-production from geothermal brines may be a better solution than extraction from seawater.”
Simbol did not respond to requests for specific information on their process from FoxNews.com.
In the end, all of the experts we spoke to agreed the geothermal salt water extraction process is inventive. Whether it provides the ultimate answer for the EV cost conundrum is yet to be determined.