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As demand for electric vehicles heats up, there's concern about a shortage of the key minerals needed to make them. The Biden administration has called for boosting domestic production of such materials, and that includes the lithium used in EV batteries. And that could mean big business for California's Imperial Valley. Benjamin Purper of member station KVCR reports.
BENJAMIN PURPER, BYLINE: A construction crew is moving dirt at the site of Hell's Kitchen Lithium and Power in Calipatria, Calif. Just a few miles away in this harsh desert landscape are the shores of the Salton Sea, a manmade lake which is full of geothermal brine that can be used to produce energy and extract lithium.
ROD COLWELL: The dirt's spread. The action's happening. So there's been too much talk about it and not enough action. Now the action is happening, so it's exciting times.
PURPER: That's Rod Colwell, CEO of Controlled Thermal Resources, the company building this plant. On a windy plateau overlooking the Salton Sea, Colwell points out the lake is receding, which has exposed nearby communities to toxic dust, but it's also revealed some crucial resources.
COLWELL: The sea's been receiving for up to about 20 to 40 yards a month, being the shallow lands down here, but which is quite ironic as it's exposing some of the best known lithium and geothermal resources on the planet.
PURPER: Right now, most of the world's lithium comes from places like China, Australia and South American countries like Chile and Argentina. Most of the lithium they produce has a steep environmental cost, as it's done through mining or large evaporation ponds that take up lots of water. But geothermal lithium...
COLWELL: Is 100% green, absolutely. Absolutely. From the steam that we produce to produce lithium for processing, green steam and green in the form of electricity as well. So it's pretty cool.
PURPER: And there's a lot of venture capital being put into this around the Salton Sea. Investors like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg are all hoping for payoff as demand for lithium takes off. Mihri Ozkan at UC Riverside says the main driver is electric vehicles. California has pledged to phase out gas-powered vehicles. This year, general Motors said it aims to produce all electric vehicles by 2035. It's all part of such a strong global trend that Ozkan says lithium is now being called white gold.
MIHRI OZKAN: So you have so much rich lithium source in the Salton Sea, and extraction of this definitely can turn this area to the Lithium Valley, if you like, not Silicon Valley, but the Lithium Valley.
PURPER: Sophie Lu with Bloomberg NSF says that's an exciting concept. But right now, the United States gets most of its lithium from China. And even with increased lithium extraction in the Salton Sea, that's not likely to change anytime soon.
SOPHIE LU: So at best, most optimistically, something might happen in the Salton Sea at an economic scale after 2025, like 2026 maybe, right?
PURPER: Even then, Lu says it probably won't be enough to revolutionize the global supply chain for lithium. Rod Colwell of Controlled Thermal Resources acknowledges it's a long shot. The company doesn't have an agreement to sell battery-grade lithium yet. But with President Biden and others focusing more on renewable energy, he says the stars are aligning
COLWELL: The timing of the market, you know, has really caught up to it. So it's great. The California government have been terrific. The federal administration aligning with California perfectly, it's like a perfect Lego sort of fit. It's great.
PURPER: If his and other companies can get it right, Colwell says the dream of Lithium Valley as an economic engine for the region and a source of renewable energy for the country could very well become a reality.
For NPR News, I'm Benjamin Purper in Calipatria.
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