Huge lithium deposits: California in the white gold rush

Status: 06.02.2022 10:35 a.m

Nothing works in the tech world without lithium. The “white gold” is mainly found in batteries. Gigantic deposits lie dormant in California. Is there a new gold rush in the “Golden State”?

By Katharina Wilhelm, ARD Studio Los Angeles

California’s “white gold,” as it’s been dubbed, is found in an unreal place: the Salton Sea in southern California. A former holiday paradise where no one wants to live anymore. In the 1950s and 1960s, the lake, which is about a three-hour drive from Los Angeles, was touted as a recreational area, where stars like Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys also stayed. The Salton Sea is now considered a toxic waste dump: the hotels have become ramshackle, and unemployment in the once prosperous region is high.

Catherine William
ARD-Studio Los Angeles

Nature has a hard time against salt

Among other things, the immense pollution of the lake is to blame – among other things from the surrounding agriculture, explains Michael Cohen from the research institute Pacific Institute: “So much fertilizer ends up in the water and it has such a high salt content that it is becoming increasingly difficult for fish to live there. And with that, there’s less and less food for the birds, so they stay away.”

The Salton Sea was created artificially by an accident in 1905 when a pipeline ruptured and flooded the Salton Depression for two years. The lake currently has neither inflows nor outflows. The water simply evaporates and therefore has a salinity that is far higher than in the sea. This repeatedly leads to environmental disasters: in 1999, around 7.6 million fish died in the salty waters.

A treasure that is difficult to recover

But beneath the murky, gray-brown water lies a huge treasure trove of lithium that experts say could cover about 40 percent of current world demand. Three companies are in the starting blocks to get the valuable metal out of the ground. “We think we can get 90,000 tons a year in a market that’s producing 300,000 tons a year worldwide,” says Jonathan Weisgall of Berkshire Hathaway, one of the companies driving lithium mining. “Not only would we become number one in the US, but we could compete with companies from Australia and South America,” Weisgall told a local television station.

Most lithium is mined in South America, followed by Australia and China. The United States, which has set itself the goal of every second new car being electric by 2030, would do well to have its own solid lithium production. But there is a problem: nobody has yet mined lithium on a large scale. Weisgall says so too and is trying to dampen expectations a bit in this way: “It worked in the laboratory, we have to show that it can also be scaled up. We want to hurry, but we have to crawl before we go and go before we run.”

Because in California, the lithium would not be mined from mines, but obtained with the help of geothermal power plants. Eleven power plants are currently drawing hot brine water from the ground. Turbines are operated with the steam, and the water is then pumped back. The lithium is to be extracted and converted from this water in the future. It should start in 2023 at the earliest.

Environmental organizations also support plans

The hunger for lithium is great, as are the expectations. General Motors has already bought into one of the companies. “We have what some have described as the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who wants to bolster mining of the metal with $350 million in tax credits.

So far there has been little protest against the planned lithium mining, on the contrary: it could be a “triple win for California, the region and the USA” if done right, says Frank Ruiz from the environmental organization Audubon on radio station NPR. Local citizens hope that metal mining will bring jobs and money that can be invested in protecting the surrounding wildlife and waking the Salton Sea from its slumber.

Will California get its “Lithium Valley”?

Katharina Wilhelm, ARD Los Angeles, February 1, 2022 6:47 p.m

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