March 1, 2024

Simbol Materials Plans to Extract Lithium From Geothermal Plants

The plant, built by Simbol Materials near the Salton Sea in the Imperial Valley, will also capture manganese and zinc.

None of the materials that Simbol plans to produce are so-called rare earths, but a study by the American Physical Society in February identified lithium and zinc as likely to be very important in the new energy economy of the future. The society considers them “energy critical elements.”

Lithium is a crucial element for batteries that power electric cars, and manganese is used in batteries and in specialty metal production. The United States imports much of its lithium and does not produce any manganese at all.

The company, based in Pleasanton, Calif., will piggyback on an existing geothermal plant that makes electricity by pumping hot water from deep underground and using its heat to make steam to drive a turbine. Then it re-injects the water into the ground. The “water” is actually a very strong brine, composed of about 30 percent dissolved salts, according to Luka Erceg, Simbol’s co-founder and chief executive.

“When we looked into the brine resource, what we found was not only lithium, but manganese, zinc and about half the periodic table of the elements,” said Mr. Erceg, referring to it as “a smorgasbord of products.”

At this point, he said, the only ones that make good economic sense to recover are the lithium, manganese and zinc.

Extracting lithium from brine is a standard way to produce the metal. The only American lithium producer, Chemetall Foote, in Clayton Valley, Nev., makes the material by pumping brine into ponds and waiting months for the water to evaporate. Two other companies have announced plans to produce lithium in Nevada using the more conventional method of evaporation.

Simbol officials say they have developed a proprietary filtering process that takes minutes and will be located on piping that is a minor detour for brine that the geothermal energy company is pumping anyway. Costs are low enough to compete in the world market, company officials say, and environmental impacts are small since the geothermal plant is already in operation.

Robert L. Jaffe, a physics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the co-author of the American Physical Society report, said that extraction of lithium with a filtration system would be a new development, and that it remained to be seen if lithium could be captured that way at a price that would be competitive with the big producers in Chile and Argentina.

The plant will process 5,000 to 6,000 gallons of water a minute, and in the same period will produce 10 to 20 gallons of salts that include the marketable metals. Since last October, Simbol has been running a modest pilot plant that filters about 20 gallons a minute, Professor Jaffe said. The brine from the Salton Sea contains lithium in a concentration of 200 to 400 parts per million, and the extraction technology is about 93 percent efficient, he said.

The biggest lithium producers are Chile, Australia, China and Argentina. The element is used in metals, pharmaceuticals and, increasingly, lithium-ion batteries, which would be a major source of demand for lithium if electric cars or plug-in hybrids became popular.

The future of the automotive battery market remains uncertain. President Obama set a 2015 goal of one million plug-in vehicles, which would include pure electrics as well as hybrids, but industry executives say they think the target will not be reached by then. The Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf went on sale this year, but sales so far are in only the low thousands. Worldwide sales could be far higher, but that is not certain yet either.

At the World Energy Council, a London-based trade association of energy producers, Stuart Neil, a spokesman, said that lithium was not as critical as materials like neodymium, but that “if the amount of lithium available on the market increases, this should lower cost and therefore has the potential to increase the penetration rate of electric vehicles.”

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