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Electric vehicles need batteries. Those need lithium. That’s where the Salton Sea comes in.

California’s largest lake is at the center of efforts to extract this key component of rechargeable batteries and make the U.S. a global player in lithium production.

Rod Colwell (right), CEO of Controlled Thermal Resources, and Tracy Sizemore, the company’s global director of battery materials, walk along geothermal mud pots near the shore of the Salton Sea, where the company is mining lithium from geothermal wastewater around the dying body of water. The ultralight metal is critical to rechargeable batteries.
Rod Colwell (right), CEO of Controlled Thermal Resources, and Tracy Sizemore, the company’s global director of battery materials, walk along geothermal mud pots near the shore of the Salton Sea, where the company is mining lithium from geothermal wastewater around the dying body of water. The ultralight metal is critical to rechargeable batteries.
Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

CALIPATRIA, Calif. — Near Southern California’s dying Salton Sea — the state’s largest lake — a canopy next to a geothermal power plant covers large containers of salty water.

Those were left behind after super-hot liquid was drilled from deep underground to run steam turbines. The containers connect to tubes that spit out what looks like dishwater.

It’s not. It’s lithium, a critical component of rechargeable batteries, the latest hope for economic revival in this depressed region and an element whose production the United States is aiming to become a key global player of.

Demand for electric vehicles has shifted investments into high gear to extract lithium from geothermal brine — salty water that has just been pumped back underground, unused, since the region’s first geothermal plant opened in 1982.

With more electric vehicles in our future, it turns out this mineral-rich byproduct might be more valuable than the steam that’s used to generate electricity.

California’s largest but rapidly shrinking lake is at the forefront of efforts to make the United States a major global player in the production of lithium. Despite large deposits of the ultralight metal in the United States, Nevada has the country’s only lithium plant, and U.S. production lags far behind Australia, Chile, Argentina and China.

Decades of environmental ruin have left some who live along the Salton Sea’s receding shores indifferent or wary. They’ve been disappointed before, most recently by solar plants that didn’t prove to be the economic engine many hoped they’d be.

The Salton Sea formed in 1905 after the Colorado River breached a dike and two years of flooding filled a sizzling basin, earning it the nickname “The Accidental Sea.” In the 1950s, the lake thrived as a tourist destination, drawing people to fish and boat, with celebrity visitors including Frank Sinatra.

But storms in the 1970s destroyed marinas and resorts. Flooding wrecked many homes in the tiny, former resort town of Bombay Beach and, after the water dried, left an almost apocalyptic atmosphere that recently has drawn artists to the area.

The lake level peaked in 1995. But, with little rain, it since has been evaporating faster than it can be replenished by Colorado River water seeping downhill through farms.

Since 2003, the 324-square-mile lake has shrunk by 40 square miles, exposing vast swaths of lakebed with microscopic wind-blown dust that contributes to poor air quality and asthma.

Not long ago, the sea was a key stopover for migrating birds. As it has shrunk, though, the fish population has declined and with it about 25% of the more than 400 bird species that populated it five years ago, said Frank Ruiz, Audubon California’s Salton Sea program director.

The lake is at the southern tip of the San Andreas Fault, which has shifting tectonic plates that bring molten material closer to Earth’s surface. The only other part of the United States known to have more geothermal brine available is at the fault’s other end, in Northern California.

Rod Colwell, chief executive of Controlled Thermal Resources Ltd., is overseeing construction of the region’s first geothermal power plant in nearly a decade. General Motors Corp. has invested in it.

The lake’s southern shores are dotted with small, volcano-like pots of bubbling mud caused by geothermal activity. Lakebed is an ideal spot for lithium.

“There is no brine resource like this anywhere on the planet,” said Colwell, whose company plans to drill down 8,000 feet to extract the super-hot liquid and whose $520 million plant is expected to begin producing lithium in 2024.

Owners of 11 existing geothermal plants around the lake’s southern shores are retooling for lithium and possibly other brine minerals. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy Co. has state and federal grants for lithium demonstration projects and could begin construction for commercial operations in 2024.

EnergySource LLC opened its geothermal plant in 2012 and plans to start building a $500 million addition for mineral extraction by the end of March.

Across a rural road, the company has a metal structure facing the plant that drills down more than 4,000 feet for steam for electricity to be generated and delivered to a utility with two million customers in Arizona.

Before the briny water is pumped back underground, it’s “borrowed” for a few hours to extract lithium, said Derek Benson, EnergySource’s chief operating officer.

Derek Benson, chief operating officer of EnergySource Minerals, in front of the Iliad — an integrated lithium absorption and desorption machine. It’s used to separate brine extracted from the ground into lithium.
Derek Benson, chief operating officer of EnergySource Minerals, in front of the Iliad — an integrated lithium absorption and desorption machine. It’s used to separate brine extracted from the ground into lithium.
Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Extracting lithium from geothermal brine has never been done on a commercial scale.

There are two dominant production methods: mining for rocks and using cooler brine that bakes under the sun for about two years until the water evaporates.

Demand for lithium has soared as carmakers shift to electric. California has targeted 2035 to achieve zero emissions from cars and trucks sold in the state. The Biden administration is aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.