Lithium Drilling in Salton Sea, California-Los Angeles Times

2021-11-25 08:40:50 By : Ms. Ellie Taihe Watch

Just one mile from the southern shore of the Salton Sea-an unexpected lake deep in the California desert, a place known for dust and decay-a huge drilling rig stands guard on some of the most interesting ground in the US energy sector.

Despite the hum of Halliburton cement tanks and generators, there is no oil or gas here, slowly pushing the drill bit through thousands of feet of underground rock. Instead, an Australian company is preparing to use buried superheated salt water reservoirs to produce renewable energy and lithium, which are important components of electric vehicle batteries.

This $500 million project finally began after years of hype and headlines, that is, the Imperial Valley will one day become a powerhouse in combating climate change. Developer Controlled Thermal Resources began drilling its first lithium and geothermal power well this month, with millions of dollars in support from investors including General Motors.

If the "Hell's Kitchen" project succeeds-still a big "if"-it will become the second commercial lithium producer in the United States. Unlike solar and wind farms that rely on weather and time, it will also generate clean electricity around the clock.

"We know we can do it. The question now is how well we can do it," said Jim Turner, COO of Controlled Thermal.

On a hot afternoon last week, workers in hard hats squeezed on a platform next to a 170-foot-high derrick and used their hands to remove clay blocks coughed up from the ground, threatening to slow the descent of the drill bit.

Except for unexpected malfunctions, the operation went smoothly. The drilling has reached a depth of approximately 900 feet and is on its way to a reservoir. Seismic investigations indicate that the reservoir will start at approximately 4,000 feet with a temperature of at least 600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Salt water is rich in lithium and other valuable minerals. Controlled Thermal is eager to reach that lucrative deposit.

"If you are lucky, we will finish [drilling] 40 days ago. But you don't know until you actually get there," Turner said.

There are already 11 geothermal power plants in the area, producing zero-emission energy for California and Arizona. They use natural geothermal hotspots, and the heat from the core of the earth radiates outward to warm the water in the underground rock formations.

Energy companies drill and bring superheated water to the surface, where the pressure drop causes it to "flash" from liquid to gas, producing steam that can turn turbines and generate electricity.

At the end of the process, salt water is injected into the ground to replenish the reservoir. The main by-product is water vapor.

The technology is expensive, and development has been stagnant for many years. But now California is using cheap solar and wind energy, and officials are scrambling to find clean energy resources that can be used 24/7, especially after sunset.

California's first new geothermal power plant in the past decade has recently started construction in Mono County. At the same time, the Imperial Irrigation District has agreed to purchase most of the initial 50 MW of electricity generated by Controlled Thermal.

California needs clean energy after sunset. Is the answer under our feet?

After years of solar and wind power generation, a new geothermal power plant was finally built.

Nevertheless, if there is no strong demand for lithium-ion batteries, the Hell's Kitchen project may not reach this stage.

General Motors plans to launch 30 electric vehicles by 2025 and stop selling gasoline-fueled vehicles by 2035, which is consistent with Governor Gavin Newsom's goals in California. Ford expects to invest $22 billion in electric vehicles in the next few years, including the all-electric F-150 Lightning pickup truck. Overall, Consumer Reports stated that by 2024, nearly 100 pure electric vehicles will make their debut.

As prices have fallen, batteries have also become popular among utility companies seeking to balance solar and wind energy and households seeking outage insurance. California already has 60,000 residential batteries, and this number is expected to increase significantly as more extreme fires and storms caused by climate change hit the grid.

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These energy storage systems will require large amounts of lithium. Industry data provider Benchmark Mineral Intelligence predicts that the demand for this metal (sometimes called "platinum") will increase from 429,000 tons this year to 2.37 million tons in 2030.

Today, most of the world's lithium comes from destructive evaporation ponds in South America and hard rock mines in Australia. Proposals to build new lithium mines in the United States—including the Thacker Pass project on federal land in Nevada and plans for drilling outside Death Valley National Park—have been strongly opposed by environmentalists and Native American tribes.

In contrast, Imperial Valley Resources can provide a large amount of new lithium supply with almost no environmental deficiencies.

"This is a brand new industry, it is a brand new tax base, it is a brand new industry," said Rod Colwell, CEO of Controlled Thermal.

The residents of the Valley of the Kings are cautious about these promises, thanks to long-term attempts by developers to profit from the minerals dissolved in the salt water deep in the Salton Sea (which has no connection with the surface lake) but failed to profit. History. Companies are often frustrated by economic downturns or the highly corrosive nature of salt water.

No depression is more noticeable than Simbol Materials. This mysterious startup claimed to have developed a game-changing lithium extraction technology, which caught the attention of Elon Musk and prompted Tesla to bid $325 million for the company in 2014, just as the Desert Sun newspaper later As revealed. Simbol rejected the purchase offer and soon had no money.

But now it seems that at least one company will solve this problem is more likely.

Controlled Thermal has partnered with a well-funded lithium extraction startup Lilac Solutions, whose backers include Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. EnergySource, headquartered in San Diego, operates the latest geothermal facility in Salton Sea, has developed its own extraction technology, and is expected to begin construction of a lithium plant before April 1. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy, which owns the rest of the geothermal fleet in the region, is committed to building lithium demonstration facilities with state funding.

At the same time, Simbol's patents are now controlled by a joint venture involving major oil producer Occidental Petroleum.

The battle for "Platinum" in Salton Sea, California is underway

Lithium is the key to renewable energy, electric vehicles and mobile phones. There are many in the Valley of the Kings.

On the one hand, Turner welcomes competition. Even if Controlled Thermal succeeds in producing 20,000 tons of lithium hydroxide by 2024-eventually producing as much as 300,000 tons per year-he believes the demand will be more than sufficient.

He said: "If all of us can make all the lithium we can make from here, then the lithium will be sold to the automotive industry."

What needs to be clear is that controlled heat still has obstacles to overcome.

Before the company can get hundreds of millions of dollars in financing to start building a power plant, it needs a water supply agreement from the Royal Irrigation District-in a valley where its vast Colorado River water rights are protected with the enthusiasm of landowners. There is always a tricky request for farmers. Environmental analysis in Empire County is another prerequisite.

Perhaps most importantly, Controlled Thermal requires General Motors-or another party-to sign a formal agreement to purchase the lithium that Hell's Kitchen will produce. General Motors recently announced a multi-million dollar investment in the Australian company, a deal that gave the auto giant the first acquisition of lithium. But this is not enough for Controlled Thermal to arrange construction financing.

Nonetheless, the fact that Controlled Thermal spent US$5 million to drill its first production well—and will soon be followed by another US$5 million well—which bodes well for the company’s prospects. Turner pointed out that GM's investment is a vote of confidence.

"Trust me, GM did its homework," he said.

The Valley of the Kings has long been the land of dreamers.

At the turn of the 20th century, white settlers overlooked the harsh, dry landscape and saw an agricultural empire. They built this empire—with 500,000 acres of farmland today—even though in the early events, the Colorado River rushed through an irrigation canal and flowed into the low-lying Salton Trough for two years, forming the largest lake in California.

The Salton Sea later became a postcard-perfect holiday destination frequented by Frank Sinatra.

It is also a place where dreams are shattered.

After tropical storms and farm runoff caused the Salton Sea to flood, the resort was abandoned.

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Later, as farmers were forced to sell water to coastal cities, the coastline began to recede, exposing lake beds covered with dust, pesticides and heavy metals. The violent winds are increasingly blowing toxic dust into the air breathed by the low-income population in the Valley of the Kings, mainly Latinos, thereby exacerbating the asthma crisis.

Efforts to restore fish and migratory bird habitats in the Salton Sea have been stalled.

The Hell's Kitchen project pays tribute to this history, for better or for worse. It is named after the restaurant and dance hall built by Captain Charles Davis on the top of a dormant volcano called Mullet Island shortly after the formation of the Salton Sea in 1908.

A century later, as the sea receded, the island became a peninsula. Only the ruins of the restaurant that no longer exists.

Today's energy companies hope to hold on longer than Captain Davis. California’s goal is to achieve 100% clean electricity and a carbon-neutral economy by 2045, and they are likely to turn their dreams into reality. Now they must insist on landing.

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Get our Boiling Point newsletter to get the latest information about the power industry, water wars, and more—and what they mean for California.

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Sammy Roth reports on energy for the Los Angeles Times and writes the weekly "Boiling Point" newsletter. He previously reported for the Desert Sun in Palm Springs. He grew up in Westwood and very much hopes to see the Dodgers win the World Series again.

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