Lithium, the Salton Sea and a startup that’s trying to change the game

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Just south of the Salton Sea — the salty, shrinking 350-square-mile lake that was formed as the result of an engineering accident in the early 1900s — a six-year-old tech startup has been extracting the “white gold” that lies thousands of feet below the surface. That valuable material, lithium, can be used in batteries for electric cars and cell phones, and the project has piqued enough interest that execs from a handful of battery makers, as well as electric car company Tesla, have visited the site.

On a typical baking-hot, dusty summer afternoon off an industrial road outside of Calipatria, California, Simbol Materials’ executives showed me the series of gray pipes and beige tanks that have so far extracted a few hundred tons of lithium product from the mixture of hot water and mineral deposits that’s pumped up to the surface by a neighboring geothermal power plant. Simbol’s plant collects this hot geothermal “brine,” purifies it, extracts the lithium — and in the future other valuable materials like manganese, zinc and potassium — and sends the water back to the geothermal plant to be reused in the system.

Simbol Materials' VP of Business Development Tracy Sizemore stands in front of Simbol's demo plant that neighbors EnergySource's geothermal plant just below the Salton Sea. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.
Simbol Materials’ VP of business development Tracy Sizemore stands in front of Simbol’s demo plant, which neighbors EnergySource’s geothermal plant just below the Salton Sea. Image by Katie Fehrenbacher.

The project is only at the demonstration scale right now, but the company plans to build a much larger (1,000 times larger in terms of volume produced) commercial-scale factory just south of the current one that could eventually create 15,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent a year. Lithium carbonate is one of the two lithium products that Simbol’s tech can deliver; the other is lithium hydroxide. Depending on the type of battery chemistry used, lithium ion battery makers would buy one or the other.

It might not sound like much, but if the venture capital-backed startup is able to scale up this process economically and efficiently, it could some day provide an important U.S.-based source of lithium for the emerging electric car battery market. Currently much of the world’s lithium comes from huge evaporation ponds in Argentina, Chile and China (and some day Bolivia). They take months to produce lithium, and have some notable environmental, as well as social, drawbacks.

A geothermal power plant owned by EnergySource, called Hudson Ranch Power I, or the FeatherStone plant, which is the location of Simbol's demo plant. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.
A geothermal power plant owned by EnergySource, called Hudson Ranch Power I, or the FeatherStone plant, which is the location of Simbol’s demo plant. Image by Katie Fehrenbacher.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates there are about 13 million tons of economically recoverable lithium reserves in the world. By some estimates, the Salton Sea could provide 800,000 tons of that. If Simbol is able to tap into more of the abundant geothermal resources around the Salton Sea it could also help revitalize the area, offering jobs to help combat a disturbingly high unemployment rate in the county, and also deliver needed money to funds that could help manage the effects of the shrinking Salton Sea.

Simbol's VP of Business Development Tracy Sizemore, stands next to tubs of lithium carbonate in a liquid substance, at Simbol's lithium extraction plant. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.
Sizemore stands next to tubs of lithium carbonate in a liquid substance at Simbol’s lithium extraction plant. Image by Katie Fehrenbacher.

The Salton Sea

The Salton Sea region sits at one of the lowest points in southern California, about 50 miles from the Mexican border. Simbol’s project rests on land that’s 210 feet below sea level. It’s believed that millions of years ago the area was part of the Sea of Cortez down south, and it might still be if there weren’t an elevation rise between the two points and silt blockage by the Colorado River. Because of the unique geography, over the centuries it’s been home to several lakes that have emerged and then evaporated, leaving behind salt and other minerals.

In 1905, the Colorado River broke through an irrigation system diversion canal in the area and over the course of the next two years spilled 400 square miles worth of water into the basin. While engineers thought the water would soon evaporate, the sea was fed by nearby agricultural runoff and in the 1920’s developed into a recreational tourist hot spot, filled with yacht clubs, boat races, introduced fish (like tilapia) and bird wildlife. In the following decades, developers, residents and business owners moved into the area, hoping that it would become the next Palm Springs by the sea.

The Salton Sea, right outside of Bombay Beach. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.
The Salton Sea, right outside of Bombay Beach. Image by Katie Fehrenbacher.

But with no naturally occurring water flowing into it, only salty agricultural run off, the sea became increasingly brackish and stagnant, leading to bizarre and harsh effects on the local ecosystem. Huge fish populations would suddenly die in a day. Bird botulism emerged. A stench can emanate from the sea depending on the way the wind is blowing. Even before these problems, a couple large tropical storms in the seventies overwhelmed the area with extreme flooding, ruining buildings on the edge of the sea.

The view off of Bombay Beach, image courtesy of Justin Kerr Sheckler, Flickr Creative Commons.
The view off of Bombay Beach. Image courtesy of Justin Kerr Sheckler, Flickr Creative Commons.

As a result, many residents and developers have abandoned the land and it’s now more associated with an apocalyptic decay. Slab City is an area about 15 miles from Simbol’s project, filled with trailers and tweakers. I stopped by Bombay Beach — a small residential area on the southeast side of the sea, which was recently profiled by Israeli filmmaker Alma Har’el — and someone had tagged “abandon all hope, ye who enter here” on one of the many abandoned buildings.

Now the Salton Sea has become the latest battleground for water-hungry southern California and even the runoff is being diverted. Starting in 2017, the water that was going into the Salton Sea will go to San Diego and Los Angeles. A restoration effort is supposed to be in place by that time that will help deal with the fallout, including what will happen to the  birds (there is an important pelican population), and how to deal with dangerous dust clouds that will emerge from the playa as the sea recedes.

A dilapidated building in Bombay Beach at the Salton Sea, image courtesy of EsotericSapience Flickr Creative Commons.
A dilapidated building in Bombay Beach at the Salton Sea. Image courtesy of EsotericSapience, Flickr Creative Commons.

Underground power

What the Salton Sea area does still have — no matter what happens to the water — is abundant geothermal power assets underground, as well as lithium deposits. The two actually go hand in hand, and the sea sits directly on the San Andreas fault. A dozen geothermal plants are already built in the region, including the most recent one that went online in 2012: EnergySource’s project, where the Simbol lithium extraction is happening.

The Salton Sea is so exciting to the geothermal industry that an entire section of the recent Geothermal Energy Association conference focused on the region. At that event, Simbol’s Sizemore called the area “a world-class global resource for lithium.”

The geothermal pipes that connect wells to EnergySource's geothermal power plant. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.
The geothermal pipes that connect wells to EnergySource’s geothermal power plant. Image by Katie Fehrenbacher.

If Simbol can make geothermal drilling and production more economical, it will likely only be good for the transitioning region. Simbol doesn’t necessarily need geothermal brine to extract lithium and other minerals from the ground, but for a startup, it’s a symbiotic relationship that makes the process cheaper.

Initially, geothermal wells can be expensive to drill because they often don’t produce as much power as desired; it takes several wells drilled to hit the right spot. EnergySource recently halted its planned expansion around the Salton Sea because of this exact problem. But by partnering with Simbol, EnergySource can potentially get some of its drilling investment back through proceeds from lithium sales.

Ormat operates a geothermal power plant in Brawley, California, in the Salton Sea region. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.
Ormat operates a geothermal power plant in Brawley, California, in the Salton Sea region. Image by Katie Fehrenbacher.

Restoration of the Salton Sea could also potentially get some help if Simbol is able to successfully scale up its technology. The idea is that Simbol, working with geothermal power producers, could lease land for projects owned by the Bureau of Land Management, the State of California or the Imperial Irrigation District. The money for the land could go into a fund that would then deal with dust control or bird habitats. That’s the theory, anyway; it remains to be seen what exactly will happen with the restoration process.

Valley of death

All of these plans hinge on whether Simbol can scale up its technology economically and efficiently. The company is now trudging through that infamous “valley of death” — the space between proving that a technology initially works and building it out to a commercial scale — and it’s this stage that has killed many a startup in the energy, resource and materials sectors.

Simbol’s Sizemore tells me Simbol plans to break ground on its commercial plant in January. The company had previously planned to do this more quickly, but there’s a lot to work to do before the building, which will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars, begins.

Simbol Material's office in Brawley, California. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.
Simbol Material’s office in Brawley, California. Image by Katie Fehrenbacher.

First, Simbol is spending considerable time designing the plant. Sizemore tells me everything is being computer modeled, down to each bolt, to make sure it’s as efficient and ergonomic as possible.

In addition, the company is also still closing on its funding. Funding for cleantech startups has been difficult to get in recent years, though Simbol has received an usual amount of attention for its technology. Sizemore says it’s close to closing funding for the plant, and an IPO could be in the works in 2017 if everything goes according to plan.

A sand dune on a freeway outside of the Imperial Valley. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.
A sand dune on a freeway outside of the Imperial Valley. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Simbol is so far publicly backed by Mohr Davidow (MDV), Firelake Capital and Japanese industrial giant Itochu. While venture capitalists have been backing the company up to this point, most likely it’ll be a combination of project equity investors and banks that step in for the next commercial phase.

At one point, local media was proclaiming that Simbol, and its domestic lithium extraction, might be enough to help draw the construction of Tesla’s huge battery factory down to the Imperial Valley, but it always seemed as if that was a long shot. Tesla announced last week that it plans to build its battery factory just outside of Reno, in Nevada. Nevada is already home to one of the only operating lithium mines in the country.

A spot off the highway where people throw their old shoes in Imperial Valley. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.
A spot off the highway where people throw their old shoes in Imperial Valley. Image by Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

No one really knows how long it will take to scale up Simbol’s extraction technology. The company is only six years old. That might seem like a lifetime for a photo-sharing app developer or even a computing device maker, but for an industrial lithium extraction company, it’s a mere infant.

What’s really promising about the company is that it’s using tech innovation to try to change the dynamics of lithium extraction. If successful, it could disrupt the South American-dominated market. Just as new drilling technology forever changed natural gas development, it’s plausible that new lithium extraction could change that industry, too — and just in time, because people around the world are sucking down more and more lithium in their insatiable demand for battery-powered devices.

49 Responses to “Lithium, the Salton Sea and a startup that’s trying to change the game”

  1. I live in Reno and while this is exciting in many ways, I also have this a going feeling. Will this part of NV become a wasteland for my great great great grandchildren? Will dangerous amounts of Lithium, Cobalt, copper, and manganese flow in the Truckee river and Pyramid Lake? I hate to think this way, but history shows that not every that shines is gold. Any ideas out there?

  2. Ok, this stinking !”·$$% was my mistake, ok… Nevertheless, it is interesting how come a small deposit of lithium can create this industrial expectancy,…wow, congratulations, ..but from carbonate to metallic lithium, how difficult it really is?

  3. Lithium is also used in the treatment of some manic-depressive individuals. So, if it eventually comes down to a choice of how scarce lithium supplies are allocated, who gets supplied – the ever-expanding pool of people needing treatment or the rapidly growing pool of battery users? What’s the environmental trade-off between one untreated manic-depressive (e.g. a mom damaging her family) and one Tesla auto?

  4. It’s amazing what can be done in a geothermal region with the right know-how. Not cheap or easy. But challenges never are. Here in New Zealand we generate quite a bit of power using geothermal steam. When the first system was set up in the 1960s it demanded some pretty unique engineering to deal with local issues. It sounds like lithium extraction offers challenges of similar conceptual scale.

  5. Robert Gagnon

    Not to go off topic but it’s incredible to see a rather lengthy article and 30 comments about the Salton Sea and yet not one mention of the movie “The Monster That Challenged The World” ??

  6. Calis in the tank

    We live not far from the Salton Sea.
    A few years ago, 60 Minutes did a piece on the Salton Sea titled “The Dirtiest River in America” and it truly is.The stench of rotten eggs from the fish kills can be overwhelming at times.You most certainly don’t want to swim in that water and to eat the fish in my opinion is just not a smart thing to do.
    Pesticides and chemicals from the local farm lands are tested at extremely high levels in the Salton Sea.
    Water rights battles and a plan to clean up the Sea have gone on for years and will continue to go on.
    As nasty as the Sea is, Environmental groups often hold up any plans for cleaning up the Sea and any plans for development in that area.
    Between the Environmentalist and the unfriendly business positions of those in Sacramento , I don’t see this project going forward for a very long time.
    JMO thanks

  7. Some caution is appropriate when talking about USGS estimates. The term ‘economically recoverable’ is qualified to ‘existing economic conditions’. Thus, there is a lot of lithium recoverable at the current market price for it, but if the price comes down due to scale, and that is of course the goal, so do the world reserve estimates.

  8. A mostly gravity canal from the Gulf of California to the Salton Sea ought to be built using solar and geothermal energy resources to get over the small hill separating the two. As a bonus that could incorporate desalination to benefit the immense Coachella Valley agricultural as well as any chemical mining.

  9. Good article. I just want to point out there’s nothing wrong with getting some lithium from South America. Chile is one of only 20 countries that has a free trade agreement with the U.S, is very pro-American and stable.

    • I agree, but on the flip side, the country is tapping itself out financially because we keep acquiring natural resources from other countries, thus promoting jobs elsewhere. Shopping at home would make things just a little better. my 2 cents.

  10. Use some of that geothermal energy, or solar energy, to power some more desalination plants. California needs abundant fresh water in the worst way. What’s that? You can’t? Corrupt politics controlls any fresh water in the entire state? No new desalination plants allowed?
    The same “elite 1%” that control the “laws” and “justice” in California are touched on in the documentary titled Who Killed the Electric Car. It’s (way past) time to kick those corrupt SOB’s out of office, change the “laws”, and supply Californians and others with abundant and affordable clean water.

  11. All this talk about the lack of water there in southern California, yet in Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas they are having massive floods. Why not spend a few tax dollars and have all that excess water piped to California. That way the southern Californians would not have to steal the water from northern California and we could start producing the food stuffs needed to keep the farmers in business.

  12. Let the next gold rush begin. This is America to her core, boom & bust. We simply do not understand the ethic of slowly but surely. Every idea be it ethanol, internet, housing markets, the ocean … it’s all a race to extract gold, oil and any resource in the fastest way. The package is neatly tied with a bow of promises of benefiting society.
    I hope to be wrong. on this…just got this nagging feeling.

  13. Larry Kadidlehopper

    Interesting to get value from demineralizing water for the geothermal plants.

    In Missouri, we had a similar situation. The lead mines were forced by the EPA to clean up their smelter exhaust gasses. Of course they screamed they would go out of business, but the EPA made them do it, too many people getting sick. The first time they cleaned the “bag houses” that took heavy metals out of the exhaust, they found high grade cadmium worth more than the lead. It quadrupled the profits of the lead mines.

    • MO resident

      and now the lead mines with their smelters are out of business (Herculaneum MO was America’s last lead smelter, closed in 2013) and the price of lead batteries has skyrocketed!! Thank you business choking EPA!!!!!

  14. Dickie Ray Williamson

    It’s a good place to bury bodies, the south end of Salton Sea…… away from prying eyes. Heak, we must of buried a couple dozen over the years, nice and tidy.

  15. Steve Matsukawa

    Unfortunately the California state government is clueless and brain dead. All the politicians want is money in their pockets, it doesn’t matter who puts it there.

    That fact is the single biggest reason why California is going to hell in a rocketship. Tesla could have located in California, but they did not want to pay the kind of corruption money being demanded by Sacramento and the local boss hogs.

    Corruption is a sad fact of life that has been enabled by the voting public, YOU.

    • I ask God, in my prayers everyday, why there are people like you. The answer is, I get to read posts from people like you, so I can continue to go to God, and ask the same prayer, until I can finally accept that the world is full of really stupid people full of vitriol, who wouldn’t dare say half the shit they say online to anyone’s face. Cowardice and fake cojones are nowhere near godliness.

  16. This lake was never supposed to be there in the first place, and without a water source it will go away in time. No use using scarce water resources to keep it replenished so the water can evaporate in the desert air.

    • If you read youd would have seen were she said over the centuries there have been several lakes whos to say whether it belongs or not? It damn sure keeps comin back

  17. jacque tutite

    FWIW, the Lithium plant near Reno works the same way, drawing water from a geothermal plant.
    I doubt that the technology is truly revolutionary, but it is good to see more development.
    Meantime, the whole exporting of water from the region is ridiculous. Another desalination plant in San Diego or LA could produce the water more affordably without the danger and economic damage of a dying lake.

    • Tom Nimsic

      America’s and Nevada,s only lithium mine/plant is not near Reno, and is in Silver peak, mid state and does not extract its lithium from geothermal any power plant, but does extract it from a salt brine..

  18. Any idea when the expensive factory will be completed and online? Any idea when we could look at what they do as a validation of their business? Lithium extraction is interesting but I’m one of those people who likes to know when we can start to expect results – either positive or negative. Just call me the Veruca Salt of clean energy.

  19. Bob Shafer

    Regardless of the Geothermal or Lithium deposits, there is still no water available for the Salton Sea, it’s best to let this lake go dry and import what water is needed for residential and industry. The Birds will find another place to go, just like there ancestors of 100 years ago did.

    • …just like there ancestors? You ignorant sot. I can see you haven’t graduated grammar school yet.

      Listen up. The Salton Sea is placed in the path of the Pacific Flyway, the North-South migratory route from Alaska to Patagonia. Because over 90 percent of inland wetlands in California have disappeared, the Salton Sea supports about 400 species of birds… almost half of the 900 species known to exist on the North American Continent alone and is one of the largest migratory pathways in the world.

      Another not so great idea. Cut off the water …