Sunday, September 10, 2023

"California’s Salton Sea Eyed for Lithium Extraction With New Tech"

Via UnDark, September 5:

As companies with billionaire backing buy in, frontline communities weigh the economics with health and environment.

When Sonia Herbert, 78, opened a restaurant in Bombay Beach, a small California neighborhood about 80 miles northeast of San Diego, she welcomed the bustle of tourists and locals visiting the Salton Sea shoreline. Located in Imperial County, the lake and its wetlands offer crucial habitats for migratory birds and a refuge for people from the hot desert sun.

But for more than 20 years, she’s watched the once-thriving oasis become increasingly desiccated and polluted with agricultural runoff and waste. Rising salinity, exacerbated by a shrinking freshwater supply from the chronically drought-plagued Colorado River, has made the Salton Sea uninhabitable for many aquatic species. The low-income community’s economy suffered, too, as the flow of visitors slowed.  

“People would go water skiing, fishing, and swimming,” Herbert remembers. “We used to have thousands of birds come through here migrating and now, you don’t see the big white pelicans anymore.

But recently, the Salton Sea has become a hotbed of industrial activity filled with promise for the future. Beneath its shores lie untouched lithium deposits that experts believe could play a role in the world’s clean energy future.

With the rising demand for lithium during the clean energy transition, the area — also known as “Lithium Valley” — has become an attractive location for major energy companies to explore advanced mining techniques like direct lithium extraction, or DLE. Through DLE, companies can directly capture lithium from brine deposits using a special “lithium filter,” bypassing the traditional, resource-intensive open-pit mining and evaporation pond processes. 

Companies with billionaire backing are buying in, with the likes of Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and others betting big on the idea. In August 2023, automaker Stellantis, Jeep’s parent company, announced that it would invest $100 million in one of the DLE projects. The U.S. Department of Energy also granted close to $11 million for the technology. Companies and some researchers say that the technologies can minimize the environmental impact of lithium mining commonly associated with conventional mining practices.

However, no DLE plant in the United States has successfully scaled up production to a commercial level. While there are a few established DLE plants in South America, none is based on a deposit as tricky and hard to work with as it would be in Lithium Valley.

Several questions remain on whether the technologies will deliver the breakthrough investors seek, and if they will be as environmentally friendly as they’re sold to be. The Salton Sea community is hopeful about the economic opportunities DLE may bring to the region, but not without concerns. “I think there are some things that are not being addressed,” Herbert says. “I want to know more about the downside.”....


Reminiscent of the time I decided 45-page investment theses were a waste of everyone's time.
I was talking to an exceedingly wealthy gentleman and about fifteen minutes in he said:

"Look, what I want to know is: What's the upside, what's the downside and what's the time frame?"

Using that mental model forces you to focus on what's important and frees you up for more cat videos.