Find answers to the Geothermal Grant and Loan program's frequently asked questions and learn about lithium recovery from geothermal brine in California.
Lithium is a soft, silvery-white metal that is an essential part of lithium-ion batteries for use in consumer products including: cell phones, laptops, power tools, electric vehicles, energy storage systems, and even drones. Due to the high demand for and reliance on lithium-ion batteries in the United States (U.S.) and the world, lithium is seen as a critical mineral important to national security and economic prosperity. 1
1 Paz, Silvia (Chair), Ryan E. Kelley (Vice Chair), Steve Castaneda, Rod Colwell, Roderic Dolega, Miranda Flores, James C. Hanks, et al. 2022. Report of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Lithium Extraction in California. P. 20 California Energy Commission.
Geothermal power plants draw hot salty water, known as geothermal brine, from underground reservoirs to the surface to produce steam. This steam then drives turbines that generate electricity. Geothermal brine circulates through the very hot rocks of geothermal areas and is enriched with minerals, such as lithium, boron, and potassium. Scientists are working on advancing technology to begin recovering lithium from geothermal brine. Researchers and geothermal energy experts are exploring how to recover lithium while producing electricity at these geothermal plants, in a safe, environmentally friendly, and economic way. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has created a Lithium StoryMap to explain the relationship between the geothermal energy process and the recovery of lithium. 2
2 National Renewable Energy Laboratory staff, U.S. Department of Energy staff. Lithium and the Future of Electrification. U.S. Department of Energy. Interactive: Lithium Storymap | Department of Energy
Direct lithium extraction (DLE)is an emerging technology which consists of several chemical processes that allows for fast isolated lithium production into market readiness. 3 Other techniques of obtaining lithium can lead to land destruction, potential contamination, and high-water consumption, making DLE a potentially more promising approach. DLE utilizes land that is already in use by geothermal power plants meaning it requires a small land footprint, adding another advantage to this process. DLE could be an impactful recovery method, since it can potentially deliver 10 times the current U.S. lithium demand from geothermal brine from the California Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area (KGRA) alone. 4 This process technology still needs to be tested at a large scale over a long period of time to understand it’s value and effectiveness.
3 Jurado, Mora. 2023.An Introduction to Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE). Darcy. An introduction to Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) | Darcy Partners
4 NREL staff. 2021. Using direct lithium extraction to secure U.S. supplies. NREL. NREL Website.
Various other locations have lithium, where the lithium is obtained from either hard rock mining (Australia and China) or continental brine deposits, known as evaporation ponds (Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia). But these methods are not going to be used in recovering lithium from the geothermal brine used by geothermal power plants located in Imperial County. Cornwall England and the Upper Rhine Valley in Germany are locations that contain geothermal brine with lithium, where DLE projects may be developed in the future.
As of December 2023, there were no commercial lithium recovery facilities in California. However, there are three known projects in different phases of development that will potentially recover lithium from geothermal brine using DLE in the near future.
- EnergySource Minerals Project ATLiS,5 is an “initiative to extract and produce battery-specific lithium products utilizing geothermal brines from the Salton Sea KGRA.” The lithium recovery project is anticipating construction at the existing John L. Featherstone Plant in Calipatria, California, with commercial operations anticipated to begin around 2026.6 The facility anticipates production of 20,000 metric tons per year of lithium carbonate equivalent. The project received a use permit from Imperial County in 20217 after the County certified an Environmental Impact report prepared to meet the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).8
- Controlled Thermal Resources intends to commence construction of its Stage 1 Lithium Hydroxide Facility in 2024, and is anticipating its first lithium hydroxide monohydrate products due for delivery in 2025. The facility is expected to produce 25,000 metric tons of battery-grade lithium hydroxide monohydrate each year to support battery production for approximately 415,000 standard-size electric vehicles annually.9
- BHE Renewables is focused on a demonstration project to assess technical feasibility and commercial viability.10
5 EnergySource Minerals staff. Smallest environmental impact in the world. EnergySource Minerals. ATLiS | EnergySourceMinerals (esminerals.com)
6 EnergySource Minerals Staff. 2023. Timeline ESM Lithium Development. EnergySource Minerals. TIMELINE | EnergySourceMinerals (esminerals.com)
7 Chambers Group, Inc. 2021. Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Energy Source Mineral Atlis Project. County of Imperial Planning and Development Services Department. Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Energy Source Minerals Atlis Report.
8 The laws and rules governing the CEQA process are contained in the CEQA statute (Public Resources Code Section 21000 and following), the CEQA Guidelines (California Code of Regulations, Title 14, Section 15000 and following), published court decisions interpreting CEQA, and locally adopted CEQA procedures.
10 BHE Renewables Staff.Geothermal. BHE Renewables. Geothermal | BHE Renewables.
California’s Imperial Valley contains some of the largest lithium deposits in the world due to the amount of lithium found in the Salton Sea KGRA geothermal brine. The term “Lithium Valley” has been used by state leadership and entities to describe the development of a world-class lithium industry in California centered on recovery of lithium from geothermal brine in the Salton Sea KGRA and the expansion of geothermal energy production, along with local economic and community development opportunities.
Geothermal brine is concentrated underground and is a naturally occurring saline solution that circulates through very hot rocks and becomes enriched with elements, including lithium. The source of geothermal brine for geothermal power plants in Imperial County is near Calipatria and Niland. The geothermal brine is deep underground, located more than a mile underground, and is not connected physically to the Salton Sea. There is a common misperception that the Salton Sea and lithium from Salton Sea KGRA geothermal brine are connected, possibly due to the naming.
The Salton Sea KGRA geothermal brine contains some of the highest concentration of lithium in the world. It is rich in many naturally occurring minerals, including manganese, zinc, and lithium.
According to researchers from the University of California, Riverside, it is conservatively estimated that there are over 2 million metric tons of lithium available in the Salton Sea KGRA geothermal reservoir at a depth of up to 1.2 miles deep from ground level,11 with a reasonable expectation that the total amount is at least three times higher.12 A California Energy Commission (CEC) funded research project, conducted by SRI International, found that the Salton Sea KGRA can produce more than 600,000 metric tons per year of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) if fully developed.13 This production rate is sufficient to produce batteries for about 11.3 million electric vehicles per year. Some estimates indicate that current geothermal power capacity at the Salton Sea KGRA is able to support recovery of roughly 127,000 metric tons LCE per year.14 15 For comparison, global production of lithium primarily through mining and evaporation ponds in 2020 was less than 500,000 metric tons LCE.16
LCE is the industry standard term used for comparison of the lithium quantity in different lithium compounds. For example, to convert from LCE to lithium (Li), divide by 5.323.
11 McKibben, M.A., W. A. Elders, and A.S.K Raju. 2020. Lithium and Other Geothermal Mineral and Energy Resources beneath the Salton Sea. Chapter 7. In Crisis at the Salton Sea: Research Gaps and Opportunities. University of California, Riverside Salton Sea Task Force. (pre-publication). Page 112. (PDF) Lithium and other geothermal mineral and energy resources beneath the Salton Sea (researchgate.net).
12 Blue Ribbon Commission Staff. 2021. Transcript of the March 25, 2021, Blue Ribbon Commission Meeting. Pages 107-108. Blue Ribbon Commission Transcript of the March 25, 2021, Blue Ribbon Commission Meeting.
13 California Energy Commission staff. 2020. Selective recovery of lithium from geothermal brines. California Energy Commission. Selective Recovery of Lithium from Geothermal Brines (ca.gov)
14 Warren, Ian. 2021. Techno-Economic Analysis of Lithium Extraction from Geothermal Brines. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. NREL/TP-5700-79178. Techno-Economic Analysis of Lithium Extraction from Geothermal Brines (nrel.gov)
15 LCE is the industry standard used for comparison of quantities since lithium can be produced in a number of forms, including lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide.
16 Logan Goldie-Scot (BloombergNEF). March 25, 2021. Global Lithium Update. Presentation. Blue Ribbon Commission Meeting. March 25, 2021, Lithium Valley Commission Presentation.
The amount and source of water for each project is assessed during the permitting process and depends on the project; however, technical discussions during the deliberation of the Blue Ribbon Commission of Lithium Extraction in California (Blue Ribbon Commission) identified that water use would be between 50,000 and 55,000 gallons per metric ton of lithium carbonate when using the DLE method.
In other applications, such as the evaporation pond methods being used in Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, the extraction process requires significant amounts of water, at approximately 500,000 gallons per ton of lithium, almost 10 times of DLE’s required water.17 Methods of lithium extraction using hard rock mining and evaporation ponds have higher environmental impacts than lithium recovery from geothermal brine due to the very large amount of water used and their larger land footprint. The DLE facilities currently being proposed in Imperial County will not use evaporation ponds or hard rock mining.
The water to be supplied to the lithium recovery facilities in Imperial County would be by Imperial Irrigation District (IID). IID is the major supplier of water to the region, providing Colorado River water to farmland and communities in Imperial County18
17 Ahmad, Samar. 2020. The lithium triangle: where Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia meet. Harvard International Review. The Lithium Triangle: Where Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia Meet (harvard.edu)
18 Blue Ribbon Commission. 2022. “Presentation - Convening of the Lithium Valley Commission, June 16, 2022.” Page 82.
If the developing of DLE is successful, Imperial County is expected to generate millions of dollars each year from a new lithium extraction tax that applies to lithium producers per each metric ton of LCE extracted in California. Twenty percent of this money must go to the Salton Sea Restoration Fund for restoration projects, community engagement, public amenity, capital improvement, or community benefit projects. The remaining funds are disbursed to the counties impacted by lithium extraction activities.19 This tax was effective January 1, 2023.
19 California Department of Tax and Fee Administration staff. Lithium extraction tax guide. California Department of Tax and Fee Administration. Lithium Extraction Excise Tax Guide (ca.gov).
California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) specifies requirements for lead agency consultation with Tribes as part of the project permitting process. CEQA also includes requirements that the public must have opportunities to review and comment on environmental documents and decision making.20
20 Paz, Silvia (Chair), Ryan E. Kelley (Vice Chair), Steve Castaneda, Rod Colwell, Roderic Dolega, Miranda Flores, James C. Hanks, et al. 2022. Report of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Lithium Extraction in California. P. 55 California Energy Commission. Report of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Lithium Extraction in California
Assembly Bill 1657 (AB 1567, E. Garcia, Chapter 271, Statutes of 2020), authorized the CEC to convene a Blue Ribbon Commission on Lithium Extraction in California, with 14 members appointed by a combination of the CEC, other state agencies, Assembly Speaker, and Senate Committee on Rules. The Blue Ribbon Commission was charged with reviewing, investigating, and analyzing certain issues and potential incentives, as further detailed in the statute, regarding lithium extraction and use in California. The statute required the Blue Ribbon Commission to submit a report to the Legislature documenting its findings and any recommendations developed after conducting the required review and analysis.
The Blue Ribbon Commission held over 23 public meetings – including several focused on soliciting input from local communities and Tribes – and adopted 15 recommendations, which were included in the report submitted to the Legislature on December 1, 2022.21
The Blue Ribbon Commission ensured that documents were easily accessible to the public, with pertinent documents translated into Spanish, such as notices, fact sheets, PowerPoint slides, and the Blue Ribbon Commission on Lithium Extraction Report. Additionally, some select documents, such as meeting notices, fact sheets, and the Blue Ribbon Commission on Lithium Extraction Executive Summary were provided in Purépecha.22
22 California Energy Commission staff. 2023. Lithium Valley Commission. California Energy Commission. Lithium Valley Commission.