The Push for American Lithium Is a Sustainability Issue

The world’s supply now mostly comes from South America, China and Australia, with sustainability challenges

GM will source lithium from Controlled Thermal Resources in a closed-loop, direct extraction process that reduces carbon dioxide emissions and has a low water-use footprint.
GM will source lithium from Controlled Thermal Resources in a closed-loop, direct extraction process that reduces carbon dioxide emissions and has a low water-use footprint.

Steve Fecht for General Motors

In early July, General Motors announced it had made a “strategic investment” in Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR), a company that is planning to produce lithium for electric vehicle (EV) batteries in a cogeneration project with a geothermal project in California’s Salton Sea. The goal: domestically and sustainably produced American lithium.

GM has made a $35 billion commitment to going both electric and autonomous. “By securing and localizing the lithium supply chain in the U.S., we’re helping ensure our ability to make powerful, affordable, high-mileage EVs while also helping to mitigate environmental impact and bring more low-cost lithium to the market as a whole,” said Doug Parks, executive vice president of GM’s global product development, purchasing and supply chain. Rod Colwell, CTR CEO, adds the “best part is that geothermal lithium is environmentally benign and produces very few carbon emissions. … [and is essentially] 100 percent green.”

To understand why a U.S.-based industry is important, it’s necessary to know where the lithium going into EVs now comes from. Treehugger talked to Andy Bowering, a 35-year veteran of the mining industry who’s the founder and director of American Lithium. The company is setting up lithium mining in Nevada, the state with the best resource in the U.S.  

Much of our current lithium is sourced from South America. Lithium comes from the Salar de Atacama in Chile, high up on a desert plateau that is the second driest place on the planet—and needs a lot of freshwater for the production process. The drying ponds are hundreds of square miles, and 500 tons of water is needed for every ton of lithium harvested (or farmed, if you want to look at it that way). And Bolivia, with half the world’s lithium (but relatively low production so far), has a high-grade resource that is very contaminated with magnesium and also needs to be separated (from brine or rock) in a process that uses a lot of freshwater. 

“In one of the driest places on earth, we can’t continue to waste all that water,” Bowering says. Lithium from rock also comes from China and Australia. Australian lithium needs to be processed in China, again a not very sustainable process. It’s interesting to point out that an Australian company, Hawkstone Mining, is among the contenders developing lithium mining in the U.S., in this case, Arizona. The company said its Big Sandy Lithium Project has produced high-grade lithium carbonate that is 99.8% pure. Utah is another state rich in lithium deposits. 

Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, based in London, reports that, in 2019, Chinese chemical companies were responsible for 80% of the world’s raw materials for advanced batteries. Contemporary Amperex Technology (which has Tesla as a customer) is the top EV battery producer in the world, with a share of 27.9%. Most of the battery plants announced through 2029 are Chinese-owned. Cobalt, another important EV metal, is 65% sourced from the serial human rights abuser, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

EnergySource Salton Sea Geothermal Site


All this makes the development of a U.S. lithium supply that much more vital. David Deak, president of Marbex, which advises Energy Source Minerals (ESM), the other company co-locating with geothermal in the Salton Sea. Co-location like this, he tells Treehugger “will enable brine resources to become not only more sustainable but also much lower risk to operate, with a correspondingly small water footprint.”

ESM recently signed on with a major blue-chip investor (not GM) and thinks it can be producing American lithium in 2024. South American lithium is high grade and low cost, but Deak said ESM can produce quality material at a competitive price. It plans to both sell lithium and license its technology to other companies. There are 11 geothermal plants operating in the Salton Sea, with all but ESM’s owned by Berkshire Hathaway Energy. That giant is also working on producing lithium in a project launched in 2019. The plan is to produce up to 90,000 tons annually. The Salton Sea could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.” And Nevada is a sleeping giant. 

Global lithium demand is predicted to soar, but MIT’s Olivetti Group sees only a modest increase in supply, from 149,000 tons in 2017 to 160,000 tons in 2023. 

Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and the founder of International Market Analysis, tells Treehugger, “There’s plenty of lithium, but much of it is cornered in China. Companies will scramble to secure supply of lithium, and we should do so in the U.S. as well. Electric storage depends on economical and competitive batteries that are cheap and effective.”