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Lithium extraction is coming to CA as the auto industry goes electric

The transition from fossil fuels to sustainable electric power has gone mainstream, most visibly in the auto industry. Major car companies are chasing Tesla with ambitious plans for its fleet Electric vehicles. Those cars and trucks run on lithium batteries.

The United States has abundant lithium, but investment in mining and extracting the metal has been slow. That’s about change.

Lithium operations powered by Clean Energy are being built in a long-neglected, impoverished part of California along the Salton Sea, not far from the Mexican border.

The area is being called Lithium Valley and companies are rushing to strike it rich, just like the Gold Rush of 1849.

East of San Diego and south of Palm Springs lies the Salton Sea – California’s largest inland body of water.


Lithium is being mined in the Salton Sea area of ​​California

60 minutes

Eric Spomer: This is a world-class lithium resource.

Bill Whittaker: It?

Eric Spomer: When you hear estimates of how big this resource could be, it’s usually measured in tons produced annually. And we are sure it is more than 300,000 tons a year. At the moment, it accounts for more than half of the world’s supply of lithium.

Eric Spomer is the CEO of EnergySource Minerals, a company based in the Salton Sea in Imperial Valley, California. It is moving forward with plans to recover lithium using an existing electric plant, powered by a massive, underground geothermal field.

Bill Whittaker: We’re moving into an era of green technology, especially with our cars. Where does this fit in?

Eric Spomer: Our more conservative projection would support seven and a half million electric vehicles a year, which is half of total US car sales, cars and trucks.

Bill Whittaker: Coming from the Salton Sea area?

Eric Spomer: Right.

Bill Whittaker: What about this plant?

Eric Spomer: This plant will be 20,000 tons per year, which is equivalent to about 500,000 vehicles per year.

Once operational, tons of lithium produced here will be shipped, refined and processed into millions of rechargeable electric vehicle batteries.


Mark Stewart is the head of Stellantis North America – a global car manufacturer that owns some of America’s most famous brands.

60 minutes

Mark Stewart: More than 50% of our lineup and our retail sales will be from battery electric vehicles by the end of the decade.

Mark Stewart heads Stellantis North America – a global automaker that owns some of America’s best-known brands, including Chrysler, Jeep and Ram Trucks.

Mark Stewart: It’s really the next phase of the quote-unquote “industrial revolution,” right? This is the most interesting and exciting time to be a part of our industry.

Stellantis is investing $35 billion in an ambitious, historic transformation.

Mark Stewart: We’re reimagining our factories — in our assembly plants. They are already looking at rolling out our plug-in hybrids as well as two new battery joint ventures that are in full construction right now.

Bill Whittaker: The New Industrial Revolution.

Mark Stewart: It absolutely is. It is, indeed, the biggest technological change in our industry in nearly 100 years.

Bill Whittaker: We were in the Salton Sea region, they believe they can supply the lithium demand for all American automakers.

Mark Stewart: Of course, it is.

Bill Whittaker: What they can produce, will you buy it?

Mark Stewart: We can certainly get as much as we can and as much as we have, we’ve already secured early.

Lithium is the key to electric cars. Solid metal helps make batteries rechargeable. There are many things around, but mining lithium is dirty business. Most come from rock quarries in Australia or as evaporated powders from mineral ponds in South America. The United States has one Lithium evaporation plant in Nevada. EnergySource plans to break ground on a clean, billion-dollar facility here along the Salton Sea in the next few months.

Bill Whittaker: So the plant will fit here in this place?

Eric Spomer: Right. That’s the place.

Bill Whittaker: It’s not a big one, it’s not a big footprint.

Eric Spomer: No.

Bill Whittaker: What are they?

Eric Spomer: We call them clay pots. And they are CO2 vents–with hot CO2 liquid that bubbles to the surface.

Bill Whittaker: So this is evidence of underground heat and activity?

Eric Spomer: Right.


i can

60 minutes

The 600-degree geothermal brine that powers the region’s electric plants comes from more than a mile below the Earth. Boiling salt produces clean steam, which drives turbines to generate enough electricity to power 400,000 homes. In the past, mineral-rich brine was simply returned to Earth. Now EnergySource plans to expand the process and extract lithium from the brine before re-entering it underground.

Eric Spomer: Our process with this resource will be the cleanest, most efficient lithium process in the world.

Bill Whittaker: And how long before the lithium processed here will be used commercially in the United States?

Eric Spomer: In 2025.

David Deck: A lot of the components that go into batteries come from anywhere in the world except America, you know.

Bill Whittaker: Why was that?

David Deck: We have a lot of decent resources in North America, they’re just underdeveloped.

David Deck worked for Tesla, traveling the world to find the best sources of lithium as it was ramping up production of its electric vehicles, or EVs. Tesla turned to lithium-ion batteries to power its cars, the same type of rechargeable battery Sony first mass-produced for its camcorders.

David Deck: There was a new market for consumer electronics. But mostly for electric cars.

Bill Whittaker: And it was triggered by Tesla?

David Deck: Triggered by Tesla. Also, you know, there’s a lot of EV growth and EV demand and production in China. This is a big part of the global lithium demand story.

Deck is now EnergySource’s chief development officer, and says he had a eureka moment when he saw its unique technology.

In the company’s lab, Deck showed us the mechanics of miniatures. A full-sized plant will be 100 times larger.

Bill Whittaker: So what happens inside this cylinder? What is it? Or what, the matrix is–

David Deck: Yes. Think of it as a column of beads, much like the activated carbon you’d find in a Brita filter. It works on a similar concept. A Brita filter will filter all impurities from the water. This sorbent is something that will only accept lithium, and not absorb everything else.

The system takes only a few hours to turn this orange brine into a clear lithium solution, which will be dried and powdered.

Bill Whittaker: And that’s what everybody’s looking for.

David Deck: That’s what everybody wants.


Bill Whittaker and Energy Source President and CEO Eric Spomer

60 minutes

Here by the Salton Sea, EnergySource is leading the lithium race. Warren Buffett’s BHE Renewables operates 10 geothermal power plants in the region. And an Australian company has another on the drawing board – controlled thermal resources. Both initiatives are underway to tap the promise bubbles beneath the surface.

CEO Rod Colwell told us that Controlled Thermal Resources has been fine-tuning the process in this test facility for 90 days.

Rod Colwell: We’re making lithium from live brine in our backyard here. This is our optimization plant.

Based on what it learned here, Controlled Thermal Resources plans to build a new plant to recover lithium, which costs about $4,000 per ton to extract and currently sells for six times as much.

The sound is the machine’s cool 600-degree brine rising from the well, spewing steam.

Rod Colwell: This is a battery grade product from Salton Sea Brine.

Bill Whittaker: Is it eureka for you?

Rod Colwell: It’s absolutely eureka, yes.

Rod Colwell tells us this bottle of pure lithium chloride is the purest product from this testing facility to date.


Rod Colwell tells us this bottle of pure lithium chloride is the purest product from this testing facility to date.

60 minutes

Rod Colwell: This is the first time I’ve had it since it happened last night, Bill. So that– I could take that home with me. That’s about $10 worth of lithium right there. so…

Bill Whittaker: You know it works.

Rod Colwell: We know it works.

The question here in the Salton Sea Basin is will it work for everyone? This rich lithium resource lies beneath one of the poorest parts of California.

The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River flooded the basin, but for the past 50 years the main source of water has been chemical-rich agricultural runoff and, for decades now, the ocean. Evaporate and shrink. A once thriving tourism industry has been replaced by environmental degradation, toxic dust and economic hardship. And with unemployment hovering around 16% in the region, there’s plenty to turn the Imperial Valley into Lithium Valley.

FRANK RUIZ: Governor Newsom called it the Saudi Arabia of lithium. I think, you know, it could change the landscape of the region.

Frank Ruiz, local program director for the Audubon Society, is fighting to include the community in that change. He was a commissioner on a state panel looking at how the entire region could potentially benefit from underground.

Bill Whittaker: You’re an environmentalist. How do you reconcile the industrialization of the area with saving wildlife and communities?

Frank Ruiz: We have to learn how to balance the table. The lithium industry could be really good, you know, for this community. It can, you know, provide better paying jobs. It can provide more job opportunities, especially for young people. It could provide revenue, you know, to offset the challenges we have here in the Salton Sea.

Geologists predict that once the industry is fully operational, the lithium will last for generations before running out. Good news for Stellantis, which ran out of battery on its plug-in hybrid Jeep Wrangler last year.

Mark Stewart: We’re sold out.

Bill Whittaker: What happened?

MARK STEWART: Uh– if I could give back my crystal ball, Bill, I would have been able to do a little bit more for the last year.

To prevent this from happening in the future, Mark Stewart and Stellantis have committed to buying lithium from controlled thermal resources in the Salton Sea, as it will be years before its product becomes commercially viable.

Mark Stewart: We’ve secured a large supply from them over a ten-year period—because we’re very positive about their technology.

So has carmaker General Motors, which has invested in controlled thermal assets. The Department of Energy and US auto manufacturers are eager for domestic lithium. Companies were shocked when the pandemic disrupted global supply chains, halting shipments of microchips, parts and batteries. Still, three quarters of all lithium batteries are processed in Asia.

Bill Whittaker: So will this domestic supply of lithium help keep the price of electric cars down?

Mark Stewart: That would definitely help.

Electric car prices are falling and are expected to be on par with gas cars in a few years, driven by tax incentives in 2022. Inflation Reduction Act. Eric Spomer of EnergySource told us that tax incentives have also been a catalyst for domestic lithium development.

Eric Spomer: We’re starting to see big announcements of investment to build that domestic demand so it never has to go overseas.

Bill Whittaker: Does this seem like a game changer for American art?

Eric Spomer: It’s a competitive advantage. This is an opportunity that we can be a global leader. And why not lead?

Produced by Sara Kuzmarov. Associate Producer, Mabel Kabani. Broadcast Associate, Natalie Breitkopf. Edited by Matt Richman.

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