You may not see it in your home, but chances are that lithium plays a large part in your life—the stuff is found in laptop batteries, pharmaceuticals, and electric car batteries, and it is considered to be an "energy critical element" by the American Physical Society. There's just one problem: While the U.S. produced 75% of the world's lithium carbonate in the 1990s, today the country only produces 5%. The same goes for other often-used elements like manganese and zinc, which are almost entirely imported. A company called Simbol Materials hopes to change all that by tapping into the brine from geothermal plants near the Salton Sea, a California inland sea that is most famous for its surrounding ghost towns.
We first wrote about Simbol in 2009, when its plans for a commercial materials extraction plant were still years off (the plant will begin construction in 2012). This week, the company—which already has a pilot plant in operation—started up a high-purity plant that refines the base materials (i.e low-grade lithium) into specialty compounds. Currently, the low-grade materials are taken from outside sources, but Simbol plans to use its own feedstock materials once it has a commercial capture plant near the Salton Sea up and running.
So why is the Salton Sea such a source of materials riches? There are already a number of geothermal plants operating in the area, and their brine—the liquid that comes up from several thousand feet below—usually goes right back into the Salton Sea after heat has been extracted for geothermal energy. But it turns out that the brine is chock-full of lithium, manganese, and zinc, so Simbol "steals" it for 90 minutes before it goes back underground and surgically extracts all the elements.
"The Salton Sea is a unique resource area replete with lithium, manganese, and zinc. We discovered that in coproduction with geothermal power plants being built here, we could produce these critical materials from brines in a very economical way," explains Simbol CEO Luka Erceg.
Outside of the U.S., the brine-tapping method of lithium extraction is common. But in the past, the U.S. has relied on dirtier hard-rock mining processes. According to Erceg, the brine method is both cheaper and more environmentally responsible, since the brine is already being used for geothermal energy. It also produces virtually zero waste.
Once a commercial brine-separating plant is up and running, Simbol could produce hundreds of thousands of tons of lithium carbonate annually, not to mention manganese and zinc. For some perspective, demand for lithium carbonate is expected to grow to 300,000 tons each year by 2020 (driven primarily by energy storage needs). "This is a proven technology applied in a novel manner," says Erceg.
[Images: Wikipedia, Simbol]