San Diego-based EnergySource Minerals believes it has the right “recipe” to tap the vast lithium resources trapped in the Imperial Valley’s Salton Sea.
The shallow, landlocked body of water has for most of its existence been more known for its rotten-egg odor caused by hydrogen sulfide overrunning the sea’s oxygen-deprived water. But that all changed with the advent of battery technology using lithium – an element needed for electric vehicles that is found in abundance in the Salton Sea’s brine.
Today, the Salton Sea is becoming known as “Lithium Valley” – a “Saudi Arabia” of lithium deposits that many believe will bring a “white gold rush” to the region. And thanks to a new extraction process developed by EnergySource Minerals (ESM), that rush is becoming closer to a reality.
“The Salton Sea could be one of the biggest contributors of lithium in the world,” said ESM’s CEO Eric Spomer, adding that the deposits could equal the massive lithium sources already found in Australia and the Anaconda Desert in Argentina.
Spomer estimates the sea could potentially produce around 200,000 tons of lithium a year and said he’s heard predictions of up to 600,000 tons a year.
Geothermal Power to ‘White Gold’
EnergySource Minerals (ESM) is a spinout company from an initial project that provides geothermal power generated at the John L. Featherstone Plant – “the newest, biggest, cleanest, most reliable plant in the Salton Sea,” Spomer said.
After some initial setbacks triggered by the 2008 Financial Crisis, the plant began construction in 2010 and went online in March of 2012 – just as solar energy started taking off and clean energy incentives in California changed.
“So from the beginning, we were looking at it as a mineral development play,” Spomer said, adding that extracting minerals makes the power generation from the plant feasible from a cost benefit perspective.
The Salton Sea, Spomer explained, is “highly mineralized,” and prior to lithium, was most known as a producer of zinc.
Minerals and geothermal power are “really symbiotic,” Spomer said. “You can’t do one without the other. Drilling for minerals creates heat and pressure which needs to be cooled by flashing steam off – and if you’re flashing steam, you might as well spin a turbine. So the two needed to go together.”
EnergySource’s Featherstone Plant is named after John Featherstone, an expert in mineral extraction who along with Dr. Charles Martsen, a Dow Chemical engineer, led a team to develop Integrated Lithium Adsorption Desorption (ILiAD) – the world’s first successful Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) process that separates lithium from brine.
“What the DLE technology does is it pulls the lithium chloride out of the brine stream and rejects everything else. What ILiAD is particularly good at, is rejecting everything else. It’s very selective,” Spomer said, adding that the process has been pilot tested since 2016. “We’ve got a ton of data and we know that it works.”
Salton Sea Lithium Project
With six years of testing under ESM’s belt, the company is preparing to break ground this month on Project ATLiS – a lithium extraction facility at the Featherstone Plant that will intercept the plant’s brine, pull out impurities and extract the lithium before reinjecting the brine back into the reservoir.
Spomer said ESM received its conditional use permit for the facility last September, voluntarily completed an environmental impact report and recently completed a definitive feasibility study for the project. The company expects to begin construction by the end of the month and be “substantially complete and running by the end of 2024.”
When completed, Spomer said the facility will produce around 20,000 tons of lithium hydroxide monohydrate a year, create about 220 jobs (70 direct) generating $19 million in payroll and local services in Imperial Valley, as well as provide $10 million in tax and tipping and $2.5 million in infrastructure development to the community.
“That’s good-sized project. It’s not the biggest project in the world but it’s a good-sized project,” he said.
Spomer estimates that just the existing 11 geothermal plants on the Salton Sea
could produce over 100,000 tons of lithium a year, and because of the massive
demand in EV batteries worldwide, more plants are expected to be built.
To ramp up lithium production in the Salton Sea and other regions domestically ESM plans to continue to license its ILiAD technology as the most advanced and vetted approach to lithium extraction.
“We would like to help that happen,” he said. “Our hope is to work with everybody else and get the Salton Sea really cooking.”
ILiAD’s Worldwide Opportunity
Although the Featherstone Plant is at least two years from cooking with lithium production of its own, ESM’s recipe for lithium extraction is already attracting hungry minerals-focused companies.
On Sept. 14, ESM announced Compass Minerals (NYSE: CMP), a leading global provider of essential minerals, had selected ILiAD as its technology provider, specifically for its superiority in lithium recovery, magnesium rejection, minimized environmental impact and commercial readiness.
Compass Minerals plans to use ILiAD for use on phase one of its 2.4 mMT lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) resource on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Phase one of development is expected to be located on the east side of the Great Salt Lake where a significant portion of the company’s existing infrastructure is located.
“Our selection of ESM is the result of a comprehensive, competitive process, and we are excited to forge ahead on our lithium development with their team as a trusted provider,” said Chris Yandell, head of lithium for Compass Minerals. “Our multi-year assessment was focused on matching the right technology with our specific lithium brine resource – and we are confident we’ve done just that with this provider selection.”
Compass chose ESM after three years of research and pilot testing of several DLE technologies. Their analysis showed the ILiAD adsorption technology to be the most successful in processing Compass Minerals’ brine resource across key combined assessment categories: lithium recovery; magnesium rejection; environmental impact; and commercial readiness.
“Compass Minerals has done extensive due diligence as it works to join the domestic battery metals supply chain to help meet the U.S. automotive industry’s need for clean and sustainable lithium,” Spomer said, adding that ESM was “not surprised” by the outcome of Compass’ findings. “Through our own extensive testing program on a range of brines from around the world, we have seen ILiAD deliver outstanding results across the full range of lithium-bearing brines.”
Spomer added that by using ESM’s ILiAD technology Compass will “enter the market with a cost-competitive, battery-grade lithium product by 2025.”
Most Sustainable Process
When Compass’ lithium hits the market in 2025, it will not only be cost competitive, it will also be produced with the most sustainable method of mining lithium. ILiAD technology dramatically reduces the water footprint of operations, does not consume reagents, demonstrates order-of-magnitude longer operating life and the highest lithium recovery rates.
“As the world transitions to a clean energy economy, lithium demand is increasing dramatically,” said Dr. David Deak, chief development officer of EnergySouce Minerals. “Currently, lithium extraction has a high environmental cost, and is produced from a limited range of geographies. A technology change is required to enable a broader, more sustainable resource base. ILiAD is that technology.”
The other common lithium extraction techniques, strip mining or evaporation ponds, both come with significant environmental and health problems associated with them.
“What the DLE technology does and ours does particularly well, is it avoids using any reagents. The absorbent fills up with lithium and then we wash it out with a small amount water,” Spomer said. “So for companies trying to check ESG boxes, there’s nothing in the world that is as clean as a direct lithium extraction approach from brines.”
The process requires heat but very little electricity – both of which can be supplied sustainably by the geothermal electricity plant, like the Featherstone Plant in the Salton Sea, the mining operations are attached to.
“So when you’re looking at scoring battery precursor materials, and lithium in particular – and this isn’t hyperbole, it’s just a fact – this is the cleanest lithium project in the world,” Spomer said. “It has a small land footprint; it uses very little water; and it has almost no emissions.”
CEO: Eric Spomer
Headquarters: Del Mar
Business: Lithium extraction from brine at geothermal power plants
Notable: ILiAD is the first successful DLE process for separating lithium from brine.