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We’ve written many times about the importance of securing a domestic supply of lithium. This so-called “white gold” is an essential component in electric vehicle batteries and electronics and will play a significant role in our clean energy transition. Presently, most of the world’s lithium comes from South America or Australia and is processed in China. However, a new operation in California may make the U.S. a player in the global lithium extraction market.

Near a saltwater lake known as the Salton Sea, Australian developer Controlled Thermal Resources began drilling its first lithium and geothermal power production well in January. So far, the drill has eclipsed a depth of about 900 feet on its path toward a briny (salty) reservoir beginning at close to 4,000 feet and is rich with lithium and other valuable minerals. 

“You can bring that brine to the surface,” said Jim Turner, chief operating officer for Controlled Thermal Resources. “You have a lot of energy in the form of heat that you can use to do work.”

“It will be the largest lithium production in the U.S., and it may end up being the largest lithium production facility globally,” Turner continued.

The project could produce an economic boom for the Salton Sea region with the potential to bring new jobs to the area. Residents currently face a 22% poverty rate.

Suppose Controlled Thermal successfully mines lithium from beneath the lake. In that case, it will be just the second commercial lithium facility in the U.S. Thacker Pass is under construction in Nevada and is expected to begin production next year. 

Lithium batteries are becoming a more popular energy storage option amongst utilities looking to balance intermittent renewables like wind and solar power. Additionally, there are already more than 60,000 residential battery systems within California alone. Demand will continue to increase as renewable energy grows. Therefore, it makes sense for the U.S. to invest in the production of this critical mineral. 

Having a domestic supply of lithium is critical for U.S. energy independence. But unfortunately, China has cornered the rare earth mineral market. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, this emerging superpower supplied around 80% of all the rare earth minerals imported by the U.S. The U.S. departure from Afghanistan only further complicated the issue. 

Afghanistan is estimated to have some of the largest lithium reserves in the world. It appears that the Taliban-controlled country wasted no time after U.S. withdrawal in forming a mineral alliance with China. Such an alliance will allow countries potentially hostile to the U.S. to control the market for one of the most critical minerals on Earth. 

Investing in lithium production here in the U.S. only makes sense. If the U.S. is going to lead on the energy transition, we need reliable access to the minerals that will make it possible. While some barriers remain, we’re thrilled to see action taken to achieve that goal. A domestic “white gold” supply could make all the difference for our energy transition and energy independence. Anything else could leave the U.S. indebted to other nations that may not have our best interests at heart. That’s a scenario no one wants.