by Ian James
An upper management employee from Tesla Motors, the electric car builder, visited the Imperial Valley while the automaker considers the north end as a potential source of lithium for batteries, Steve Benson, District 5, of the Imperial Irrigation District said Tuesday.
Tesla is looking to secure additional sources of lithium as the Palo Alto-based electric car maker moves forward with plans for its “Gigafactory,” the world’s biggest plant to produce lithium-ion batteries.
And while the location of that factory remains up for grabs between four states, one potential source of lithium appears to be Simbol Materials, which has a small plant in at a geothermal factory demonstrating a new technology that extracts lithium from the brine, a by-product from the hot water used to generate geothermal energy.
“Tesla is looking at sources for all the things they buy, and lithium’s one of them, but I know a bunch of other companies have also looked down here at Simbol as a place to buy lithium,” Benson said.
He and other local officials hope Simbol Materials’ project will boost economic development in the Valley and also help spur an initiative in the state congress to generate more geothermal energy around the Salton Sea.
Simbol Materials, based in Pleasanton, plans to scale up its project near the Salton Sea to begin producing larger quantities of lithium.
Benson said he had a casual meeting with a Tesla employee who came to the Simbol plant for a private meeting in the past month. He described the employee as a “research guy,” saying they had a conversation after the visitor’s meeting at the plant.
“They’re sourcing lithium throughout the world,” Benson said. “I just told him they should build their Gigafactory here, and the guy told me: ‘That’s not my job.’ ”
The account adds to earlier talk about Tesla eyeing lithium from the pilot project in Imperial County. In April, IID energy manager Carl Stills said in a speech in Indian Wells that Tesla was “considering the Imperial Valley because of the location close to the potential lithium.”
Simbol Materials’ demonstration plant is located at EnergySource’s Featherstone geothermal plant near the Salton Sea. It extracts lithium and other minerals after the hot brine has been used to generate energy.
John Burba, CEO of Simbol Materials, has said previously that the company intends to produce about 15,000 metric tons per year, a quantity that could meet roughly 10-15 percent of the global demand for lithium.
Most of the lithium that is used in lithium-ion batteries now comes from other countries, including Chile, Argentina and Australia.
The lithium coming from the geothermal brine appears to be of very high quality, higher than mined in other areas.