PUBLISHED THU, MAR 28 20198:45 AM EDTUPDATED THU, MAR 28 20191:00 PM EDT
That’s why Gates, Bezos, Ma and dozens of other high-net-worth individuals (including Michael Bloomberg and Richard Branson) launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV). The $1 billion fund will forgo near-term returns on investments, providing much-needed time and operating capital to researchers and companies solving difficult technical problems in the capital-intensive renewable energy space. The fund currently lists 14 companies in its portfolio, ranging from startups working on battery and grid storage technologies to companies developing better geothermal and even fusion energy generation systems. Investments range from $200,000 to $20 million, depending on each company’s needs and stage of development.
According to reports from the International Energy Agency, electricity investments are flowing toward renewables, networks and flexibility, while at the same time more than 100 globally significant financial institutions have implemented policies restricting investments in carbon-intensive fossil fuels like coal.
In a February research note, UBS analysts pointed to trends in urbanization and population growth, technological progress driving cost advantages in the renewable space and an improved regulatory environment as factors driving the long-term viability of renewable-energy investments. Globally, cumulative investment in renewables will surpass $9 trillion by 2050, they say, while cumulative investment in energy efficiency and clean-air technologies will balloon to $35 trillion by 2030.
Institutional investors such as UBS are following the same trend lines start-ups and private project financing firms have been following for some time. “There are a number of trends that we see,” said Ramya Swaminathan, CEO of Malta Inc., a maker of distributed thermal electricity storage, and a former public finance banker in the energy sector. “For the first time in [10 to 15 years], renewable-energy sources are cheaper than carbon-intensive sources of electricity.”
Trillions on the sidelines
Historically, start-ups developing new renewable energy-enabling technologies or developing clean energy projects have experienced difficulty raising funds from institutional investors, in part because of long development timelines and sizable technical risk. But particularly on the project financing side of things, renewable-energy projects suffer from a lack of familiarity. Institutional fund managers simply don’t have a thorough understanding in the renewable energy industry and the potential returns to be had there.
“There are huge opportunities, but it looks completely unfamiliar if you’re a pension fund — it just doesn’t look like the project finance you’re used to,” said Rob Day, managing partner at Boston-based investment firm Spring Lane Capital. “They see these trends, and they take a step back and say ‘we have to figure out how to play this from a 30-year investment perspective.’
(Reuters) - Miners are pushing to sharply boost lithium output in the United States, as automakers in the world’s third biggest electric vehicle market are eager to cut their dependence on China for the critical battery ingredient and find more local sources.
In North Carolina, Nevada and half a dozen other states, miners are working to revive the U.S. lithium industry, once the world’s largest until it fell off in the 1990s.
Global demand for the lightweight material is expected to quadruple by 2025. Miners are betting U.S. expansion will pay off with orders from battery and vehicle manufacturers who are wary of relying too much on China, which is home to the majority of the world’s lithium processing facilities and sucks up most output of top producer Australia.
Piedmont Lithium, a small mining company in the early stages of a plan to revive lithium production in North Carolina, was approached in recent months by two large U.S. automakers, Chief Executive Officer Keith Phillips said. “They are excited about the idea of securing lithium supply outside of China,” Phillips said in an interview, declining to name the automakers. Miners are also advancing lithium projects in states including Utah, California and Arkansas.
The United States produced only about 2 percent of the world’s lithium last year, from a single mine in Nevada. But it has around 13 percent of the world’s identified resources, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Higher prices could make mining profitable. In May, the United States counted lithium among 35 critical minerals, which could up speed up mine permitting. “Given its close proximity and the opportunity to diversify the supply chain, we would certainly be interested in U.S.-based lithium sources - as long as it is sustainable, environmentally friendly, and competitively priced,” a spokesman for a major U.S. automaker said in an emailed response to a question. The company declined to be identified.
LA Times story “…lithium, which is abundant in the Imperial Valley, are the building blocks for many technologies”
“These new investments are going to do more than create good-paying jobs. They are also going to set America up to lead the world in building a clean energy economy and a clean energy future,”
Biden, Newsom bet on minerals for tech sector
A GEOTHERMAL ENERGY and lithium plant on the south side of the Salton Sea. Minerals such as lithium, which is abundant in the Imperial Valley, are the building blocks for technologies found in everyday products. (Gina Ferazzi Los Angeles Times)
By Anumita Kaur
WASHINGTON — President Biden is looking to California to help secure a permanent pipeline of critical materials essential to the tech industry that can boost the nation’s green energy production and its competitiveness.
Speaking Tuesday at a virtual roundtable with Gov. Gavin Newsom, the president touted a series of investments around the country, highlighting several in California, including a new $35-million contract that the Department of Defense has awarded a Las Vegas company to separate and process heavy rare earth elements at its facility in Mountain Pass, Calif.
The goal of the contract with MP Materials will be to establish a permanent end-to-end domestic supply chain for the magnets used in electric vehicle motors, electronics and wind turbines.
Nearly 100% of the nation’s critical minerals are imported from foreign sources, including materials such as lithium and graphite, “which are badly needed for so many American products,” Biden told the group of industry and community leaders.
“China controls most of the global market of these minerals, and the fact is that we can’t build a future that’s made in America if we ourselves are dependent on China for the materials, the power, the products,” he said.
U.S. officials have long emphasized that such a lag in competitiveness poses not only an economic risk, but also a national security one.
Those concerns were driven home Tuesday as Biden joined the roundtable minutes after announcing economic sanctions against Russia for its latest military incursion in Ukraine.
Minerals such as lithium, which is abundant in the Imperial Valley, are the building blocks for many technologies found in everyday products such as computers and household appliances, as well as green technology.
Among the projects Biden touted: Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables plans to break ground on a demonstration facility in April in Imperial County, where the company will test their lithium extraction process. It’s a multibillion-dollar investment in sustainable lithium production over the next five years. The company received $6 million the project from the California Energy Commission.
Controlled Thermal Resources and EnergySource Minerals have also established operations in Imperial County to extract lithium from geothermal brine. “These new investments are going to do more than create good-paying jobs. They are also going to set America up to lead the world in building a clean energy economy and a clean energy future,” Biden said.
With such a positive outlook for a Californian critical minerals industry, Newsom said the state will focus “not just on the economic opportunity, but making sure that the growth and inclusion strategies include local hires, local benefits in a sustainable way.”
“We’re still doing a lot of the due diligence, but if it’s as big as it appears to be, this is a game changer in terms of our efforts to transition to low-carbon green growth and radically change the way we produce and consume energy,” Newsom said.
Silvia Paz, executive director of Alianza Coachella Valley, who attended the event, said that when her community hears about the excitement around lithium, “there is a cautious optimism.”
The Salton Sea, in northern Imperial County, faces environmental degradation, and her organization is concerned about the impact of the race to extract more lithium. The region also has high unemployment rates and was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Could “this be a game changer?” she echoed Newsom. “Yes, it could, if done right.” This means pursuing plans “in an environmentally friendly manner” and involving the local community from the beginning, so “that they can have a seat at the table when we’re talking about community workforce agreements and determining what percent of labor should come from the local region,” she said.
Global demand for critical minerals is set to skyrocket by up to 600% over the next several decades, White House officials said.
For minerals such as lithium and graphite, which are used in electric vehicle batteries, the administration said, demand is expected to increase by as much as 4,000%.
Will one of the planet's most polluted lakes become California's Lithium Valley?
By Derya Ozdemir
Jul 13, 2021 (Updated: Jul 14, 2021 14:32 EDT)
Lithium is an essential ingredient in electric car batteries and renewable energy, which makes it incredibly valuable as the world transitions toward a more sustainable future. Currently, the overwhelming majority of lithium in today's batteries comes from Australia, Chile, China, and Argentina. So, a race is on to produce the vital raw material in the United States.
In order to address the near-total reliance by the U.S. on foreign sources of lithium, there are many competing projects, and in one of the latest advancements on the issue, General Motors Co. (GM), the country's largest domestic automaker, has announced a deal with a company called Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR) to supply it with lithium from the Salton Sea, which is one of the most polluted places on the planet due to decades of agricultural runoff.
“Lithium is critical to battery production today and will only become more important as consumer adoption of EVs (electric vehicles) increases, and we accelerate towards our all-electric future,” said Doug Parks, GM executive vice president, Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain, in a press release.
“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.”
The announcement represents a step toward GM’s commitment to phasing gasoline-powered cars out of its production line by 2035. CTR is building a lithium extraction and power generation facility in the Salton Sea's Hell’s Kitchen geothermal area and is scheduled to begin providing lithium to GM by 2024. Then, GM will be well-poised to achieve its goal.
The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 when flooding caused the Colorado River to break through an irrigation canal and flow into the Salton Basin for 18 months. It is thought to sit on top of one of the country's biggest lithium brine reserves, capable of supplying up to 40 percent of global demand, according to the California Energy Commission.
The Salton Sea already has a network of ten geothermal power stations, and it does not hold lithium itself -- rather, the lithium is dissolved in hot brine that comes from the Salton Sea geothermal reservoir deep beneath the surface. CTR will be using a "closed-loop, direct lithium extraction process" that integrates direct lithium extraction with renewable geothermal energy, offering, "the highest sustainability credentials available today."
"CTR’s closed-loop, direct lithium extraction process utilizes renewable power and steam – significantly reducing the time to produce battery-grade lithium products and eliminating the need for overseas processing. CTR’s operations will have a minimal physical footprint and a near-zero carbon footprint. The brine, after lithium extraction, is returned to the geothermal reservoir deep within the earth," CTR explains, in a press release.
The first phase of the Hell’s Kitchen development is expected to start providing lithium in 2024.
The announcement has been met with mixed feelings by some in the area. While the economic benefits will be especially welcome, the impact of the technology used by CTR is yet to be fully analyzed.
California Assembly member Eduardo Garcia, who represents part of Imperial County and wrote the law that created the Lithium Valley Commission, reminded the Desert Sun newspaper that, “One of the main principles is to do no harm. A lot of information is still to be gathered and understood before we are able to determine that this is going to be the best thing to happen and will have the return investment from a social, human health, economic perspective."
Some environmentalists are concerned about further deterioration of air quality in the already-polluted area, which has very high rates of asthma, and possible damage to wildlife and habitat. However, unlike traditional mining, CTR claims that its system will leave no tailings, as they will re-inject the brine back underground once the lithium has been extracted, and that the entire process will use renewable energy with no carbon emissions.
Editor's Note: Information in this article has been updated. An earlier version mistakenly stated the company uses open pits. This was corrected.
A Bloomberg New Energy Finance Limited report in 2020 highlighted China’s global dominance in the lithium-ion battery supply chain market, due to its grip on raw material mining and refining. In 2019, the US imported 80 percent of its rare earth minerals from China, while the EU states imported 98 percent of these materials from China.
China incidentally also shares a small border with Afghanistan called the Wakhan Corridor – 210km long. While the length of the border may appear insignificant, its location is crucial. Afghanistan is believed to have large deposits of gold, iron, copper, zinc, lithium and other rare earth metals, valued at over $1 trillion.
“Afghanistan may hold 60 million metric tons of copper, 2,2 billion tons of iron ore, 1,4 million tons of rare earth elements (REEs) such as lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, and veins of aluminium, gold, silver, zinc, mercury…” according to a 2020 report in The Diplomat.
But the Wakhan Corridor has been used by Islamic Uighur militants opposed to Chinese rule in Xinjiang. Chinese officials meeting with the newly installed Taliban are certainly aware of risk that radical Islamists pose: “We hope the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with all terrorist organizations including ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) and resolutely and effectively combat them to remove obstacles, play a positive role and create enabling conditions for security, stability, development and cooperation in the region,” said a high-ranking Chinese official.
Why is this important?
Global demand for lithium is projected to increase 40-fold by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency, along with rare earth elements, copper, cobalt, and other minerals also abundant in Afghanistan. And these minerals happen to be concentrated in only a small number of pockets around the world.
The Bolivian Andes may contain 70 percent of the planet’s lithium and many analysts argue that extracting lithium from brine as in Bolivia is more environmentally friendly than extracting it from rock.
Interestingly, metallic lithium and its complex hydrides are used as high-energy additives to rocket propellants, thermonuclear weapons or even as a solid fuel.
In 2010, the US Department of Defense called Afghanistan “Saudi Arabia of lithium” after American geologists then discovered that the country’s deposits amounted to at least a trillion dollars. Lithium is an essential ingredient to produce long-lasting batteries used in electric cars in particular. The battery of a Tesla Model S, for example, has about 12 kilograms of lithium in it.
Ten years later, these metals have not yet been extracted. The Taliban is unlikely to sell the metal to Americans, and the United States views China, the world’s largest lithium producer, as its main rival. And the US wants at least 40 percent of its cars to be electric by 2030. Thus the previous US-led government in Kabul had previously hoped that the promise of mineral wealth would entice President Trump into making a commitment to stay in the country.
“Afghanistan can be an appropriate place for US industry, and specifically the mining sector, to look at opportunities for investment,” Mohammad Humayon Qayoumi, the former chief adviser to Afghan president on infrastructure, human capital and technology, once opined.
But Tom Benson, a PhD in the Department of Geological Sciences at Stanford University, has focused his research on a 16,3-million-year-old super volcano on the Oregon-Nevada border which contains the largest lithium deposit in the United States. A number of other active volcanoes may hold the same deposits and there is a particularly “exciting” one, called Bogoslof, in Alaska. That may be why the US has lost interest in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban are now sitting on a stockpile of one of the most strategic minerals in the world,” said Rob Schoonover, an ecology expert at the US think tank Center for Strategic Risks, in an interview with Quartz. “The question of whether they will be able to play this role will be important in the future.”
Could the Taliban benefit from this resource?
The exploitation of these rare earth metals could undoubtedly give the Taliban an economic advantage. Before the US retreat, the Afghan government had considered selling lucrative mining contracts to American companies. But such agreements were always discussed with the view of keeping the US military in the country and sharing the spoils. With the Taliban now leading the government, the option of involving American mining concerns is of course out of the question.
“As long as there are safer and more reliable sources (of metals, note) elsewhere, the use of Afghan minerals will remain low,” said Schoonover. However, the Taliban already have experience in extracting rare stones. By mining lapis lazuli, the Taliban earns at least $300 million per year.
Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president now in exile, thought that the abundance of mineral deposits were a curse for his country. Indeed, many economists are aware of the fact that such rich deposits in developing countries generally become a source of corruption and violence, to the detriment of the locals.
The Taliban will have to find a way to participate in the global lithium trade, much larger that their lapis lazuli trade. Access to Afghan central bank reserves has been denied to the Taliban by the US. The new Afghan leadership could also have trouble in convincing Chinese investors who once lost $3 billion in 2007 in a Taliban copper mine that could not be exploited due to persistent administration blunders.
However, good reason for China become involved in the extraction of lithium in Afghanistan may not only be the wealth it could generate, but also to avoid more ecological damage caused by lithium mining on its own soil and to limit the scope of Islamic infiltration. The extraction of this metal leads to water shortages and air pollution, but the rewards could coax Taliban leaders into addressing the Uighur headache.
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Berkeley Lab leading investigation to better understand the Salton Sea’s geothermal lithium resources
News Release Julie Chao • February 16, 2022
The Salton Sea geothermal field in California potentially holds enough lithium to meet all of America’s domestic battery needs, with even enough left over to export some of it. But how much of that lithium can be extracted in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way? And how long will the resource last? These are just a few of the questions that researchers hope to answer in a new project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
There are currently 11 commercial plants at the Salton Sea field producing geothermal energy, a clean, renewable form of energy in which hot fluids are pumped up from deep underground and the heat is then converted to electricity. Normally the cooled fluid would simply be reinjected underground, but the idea is to first extract the lithium from the brine before injecting it back.
With the push by California and many other states and countries to expand adoption of electric vehicles (EVs), the demand for batteries – and the lithium needed to make those batteries – will skyrocket. With nearly $1.2 million in support from DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Office, scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), UC Riverside, and Geologica Geothermal Group, Inc. will work together to both quantify and characterize the lithium in this hypersaline geothermal reservoir, located far beneath the surface of Earth near the Salton Sea in Imperial County.
The project is the first comprehensive scientific effort to map out California’s so-called “Lithium Valley” and attempt to gain a detailed understanding of the mineral-rich underground brine at the Salton Sea geothermal system. Using an electron microscope and other advanced analytical tools, for example, they hope to learn the mineral sources of lithium and whether the rocks will “recharge” the brine with lithium after it has been extracted from the produced fluids.
The project team will also investigate potential environmental impacts – to quantify how much water and chemical usage is needed for lithium extraction, air quality during the extraction process, and potential induced seismicity from the associated geothermal energy production.
“We are excited to fund Berkeley Lab to develop this rich and detailed analysis of the lithium resource potential at the Salton Sea. This project will provide critical insights about the subsurface that will help us secure a domestic lithium supply chain using the most environmentally responsible, data-driven pathway,” said Alexis McKittrick, Program Manager for Hydrothermal Resources in DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Office.
“The Salton Sea geothermal system is the primary potential geothermal resource for lithium in the United States, and it’s a world-class resource,” said Pat Dobson, the Berkeley Lab scientist who is leading the project. “But there is a wide range of estimates in terms of the size of the resource, and also not a great understanding of where the lithium comes from, the rate at which it would decline over time with extraction of lithium from the geothermal brines, and whether it would be replenished by the remaining lithium in the host rocks.”
Currently, most of the world’s lithium supply is either mined from open pit mines, which are common in China and Australia, or extracted from salar deposits, or Salt Lake flats, in South America. Lithium is obtained from these huge deposits (the largest salar, located in Bolivia, is the size of the “Big Island” of Hawaii) simply by pumping up the shallow groundwater and letting it sit for a year or two while the sun evaporates the water.
But both of these methods have serious environmental issues associated with them. “We think geothermal lithium is one of the least environmentally impactful ways of obtaining lithium,” said Dobson, an expert in geothermal energy and a key contributor to Berkeley Lab’s Lithium Resource Research and Innovation Center. “We want to understand how to mitigate any environmental side effects to make it even more benign.”
The “Saudi Arabia of lithium”
The potential size of the lithium resource at the Salton Sea is staggering. Governor Gavin Newsom recently called California the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” and the state established the Lithium Valley Commission last year to research and write a report on the opportunities.
UC Riverside geochemist Michael McKibben, who has been studying the Salton Sea geothermal field since the 1970s, agrees with the potential.
“If you do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, you can convince yourself there’s somewhere between 1 and 6 million metric tons of lithium in that field,” he said. “That would be the largest brine source of lithium in the world, bigger than any individual South American salar deposit. So, it’s a big number, and it means the potential is there for – again, back-of-the-envelope calculations – something like 50 to 100 years’ worth of lithium production.”
McKibben, a professor emeritus, and Maryjo Brounce, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, lead the UC Riverside effort in this project. Brounce, a petrologist by training, will use instrumentation to map out where the lithium is located within the reservoir rocks, and what form it’s in. This geochemical characterization will then be incorporated into models to assess the rate of resupply of lithium to geothermal fluids.
We’ll look at how quickly might you expect the resource to be regenerated – is it centuries? Decades?” Brounce said. “Those chemical reaction rates will depend on where in the rock lithium is stored pretty strongly, so it can help create a predictive tool.”
This work will complement geochemical studies being conducted by researchers in Europe, who are also investigating the potential of geothermal brines for supplying lithium.
Strong industry support
Several companies have started pilot operations at the Salton Sea to extract lithium, including Berkshire Hathaway Energy (BHE) and Controlled Thermal Resources. (Berkeley Lab has projects with both under grants from the California Energy Commission.) For this new project, Berkeley Lab and UC Riverside will use data from companies active in the area as well as published documents and field data from the state of California’s Geologic Energy Management (CalGEM) databases.
“We need better data on the chemistry of the brines and their lithium content and how it’s distributed in terms of position and depth in the geothermal field,” McKibben said. “We’ve asked the geothermal companies to share their brine data with us. Pat and his group will put that in a database. Then if we can use the database to correlate lithium concentration with things like temperature, chlorinity, and other physical and chemical parameters, we can actually predict how much lithium might be in brine in parts of the field that haven’t been completely drilled out yet.”
BHE has pledged to work with the research team. “BHE Renewables supports this research effort and looks forward to assisting Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with this important study,” said Jonathan Weisgall, BHE’s vice-president of government relations.
The vision is that lithium from the geothermal field located near the Salton Sea will one day form the basis for a new domestic battery industry in the United States, generating much-needed economic growth in Imperial County, the county with the lowest per capita income in California.
“We need to get students to understand they can have very lucrative careers involving green energy,” McKibben said. “This is one opportunity to do that.”
Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 14 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab’s facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.