CALIPATRIA — There’s a lot to see at Simbol Materials’ demonstration plant near the southern shore of the Salton Sea, where the company is testing out what could be an industry-changing technology for extracting lithium from geothermal brine.
What’s at stake here is a process that could provide the United States with a key source of the high-quality lithium needed to produce lithium-ion batteries used in a range of digital devices and green technologies, from computer tablets and cell phones to electric cars and microgrids.
The U.S. now imports most of the lithium it uses from Chile and Argentina, which along with China and Australia are among the world’s leading producers of the metal, said Brian Jaskula, a lithium commodities specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey.
If successful, the operation could also generate millions of dollars to be used to combat the shrinking of the Salton Sea and the dust and public health threats the drying up of the lake could trigger. A recent study from the Imperial Irrigation District estimated mineral extraction from brine at the sea could pump out $1.5 billion in revenues over the next three decades, at least part of which could be channeled to restoration projects at the sea.
Located in Calipatria, the demo plant draws its brine from EnergySource’s Featherstone plant, a 49.9-megawatt geothermal project that sells its power to the Salt River Project, a public utility in Arizona. The plant and a lab and warehouse space in Brawley are the forerunners of a commercial operation that, Simbol executives said, could increase the test plant’s production capacity a thousand-fold — from 6 gallons to 6,000 gallons of brine per minute — eventually extracting 15,000 metric tons of high-grade lithium per year.
The privately held company, based in Pleasanton, has so far received four patents on its process and has several more pending, which is why it has so far cloaked the test plant in secrecy, said Tracy Sizemore, vice president of business development.
“Even within the patents, there is some intellectual property,” he said. “There is the application of the process, which isn’t patentable but it is nonetheless a trade secret.”