Ford Finds California Lithium Source
Converting geothermal brines into battery materials is the goal of a new agreement.
Ford Motor Company and EnergySource Minerals (ESM) are joining the lithium business together. ESM will supply Ford with lithium hydroxide to produce lithium-ion battery cells for the car company’s electric vehicle (EV) line.
John L. Featherstone plant. Image used courtesy of ESM
The lithium battery materials will be produced at ESM’s Project ATLiS facility in Imperial Valley, California, which should begin operations in 2025. The operation will separate lithium from a geothermal brine resource obtained on location from California’s Salton Sea.
ESM operates the John L. Featherstone Plant, a geothermal power generating facility in the Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area (“KGRA”). Hot, pressurized geothermal brine is brought to the surface from production wells. The brine is then cooled slightly, which releases energy in the form of steam. This process is called "flashing." The steam is then processed and sent to a turbine generator, which converts the steam's energy into electricity. The remaining brine is processed to remove mineral solids such as lithium before being reinjected into the ground.
The Salton Sea’s Viability to Produce Geothermal Energy
The Salton Sea is a shallow, extremely salty lake at the southern end of California. The sea sits on the San Andreas Fault within the Salton Trough, stretching to Mexico's Gulf of California.
The Salton Sea is about 15 miles wide and 35 miles long, though its dimensions vary depending on agricultural runoff and rainfall. In 1905, a canal was accidentally breached during a flood, allowing water from the Colorado River to flow into the Salton Sink, creating the Salton Sea. The water continued to flow for two years, creating a massive lake. The Salton Sea is gradually shrinking due to evaporation and agricultural runoff.
The high salinity of the Salton Sea has killed much of the fish and other wildlife in the surrounding area, and the exposed mudflats are a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The dust from the mudflats is also a health hazard, as it can contain high levels of arsenic and other toxins. Because it sits on a geologic fault, superheated brines exist beneath the Salton Sea, making it a viable resource to produce geothermal energy.
Removing the Lithium
ESM’s ATLiS process uses only a fraction of the water and land footprint. It is much less carbon intensive than the traditional evaporation ponds used to remove lithium from brines in places like Chile and Argentina. Evaporation from a series of solar ponds can take three to five years to process brine into lithium materials used in battery production. In the proprietary ATLiS process, the geothermal brine is first used to generate electrical power and then sent through a lithium-selective adsorbent with continuous bed processing, maximizing lithium extraction from the brines. The continuous process creates lithium materials nearly instantaneously.
The Inflation Reduction Act ties incentives to buy EVs in the U.S. to a manufacturer’s North American vehicle and battery pack production. To be eligible for a $7,500 tax incentive, vehicles must be made in Canada, the United States, or Mexico. SUV EVs must be under $80,000, while the price cap is $55,000 for sedans, coupes, hatchbacks, and wagons to qualify for the incentives. Further, the raw materials used to produce the batteries must be sourced in North America or an approved U.S. trading partner.
Ford is not the only automaker interested in domestic lithium production as General Motors, Tesla, and Stellantis are among others investigating home-grown lithium resources.
ESM’s ATLiS in California's Salton Sea is expected to produce approximately 20,000 metric tons of lithium annually, roughly four times the current U.S. supply of domestic lithium, and will supply Ford with enough lithium to build around 500,000 EVs annually.