The race to supply the global auto industry with enough lithium to fuel the switchover from gas to lithium-ion EV batteries is churning into high gear. The environmental costs could also be high unless the lithium supply chain focuses on lower-impact extraction technologies. Pressure from automakers would help steer lithium stakeholders in a more sustainable direction, and Stellantis has just upped the ante with a $100 million investment in the Hell’s Kitchen lithium project.
Geothermal Brine For The US Lithium Supply Chain
Hell’s Kitchen is the rather poetic name for a geothermal brine project located at the Salton Sea in California.
The project came across the CleanTechnica radar in 2021, after we noticed that the US Department of Energy has been eyeballing geothermal brine extraction as a way to stimulate the US geothermal industry while pumping up the nation’s domestic lithium supply chain.
That’s more complicated than it may seem. Geothermal brine has been described as a “rich stew” of dissolved materials, of which lithium is only one. The challenge is to develop an economical way to separate lithium from a stew that is not only rich but also hot.
“To visualize how complex and delicate the extraction process is, imagine you are flipping for baseball cards, except all of your cards are stuck together and they are on fire,” we observed.
How It Started…
The company Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR) is the developer behind the Hell’s Kitchen project. The project launched in the fall of 2021 with a relatively modest footprint and was billed as “the world’s first, fully integrated, new geothermal-lithium facility to commence construction.”
The Salton Sea already hosted 450 megawatts’ worth of geothermal energy generation by 2021. Initial plans for the Hell’s Kitchen plant included another 50 megawatts at temperatures ranging from 550–650 degrees Fahrenheit.
On the production side, CTR anticipated about metric 20,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year, along with the potential to produce potassium, zinc, and other substances.
…How It’s Going
In the two years since then, CTR’s lithium supply project has transformed into a soup-to-nuts EV battery ecosystem.
“We are not just ‘suppliers of lithium’. We are working with our strategic partners to deliver solutions that support the emerging battery supply chain,” CTR noted in a Q3 update on its website.
The update describes two main projects at the site. One involves the potential to co-locate a cathode active materials facility at the Hell’s Kitchen site. “We know this removes shipping risks and costs, lowers C02 emissions, and removes substantial CAPEX and OPEX from bagging, logistics, and de-bagging operations,” CTR observed.
The other project carries forward the idea of separating other materials from geothermal brine in addition to boosting the lithium supply. Specifically, CTR estimates that it could recover five times the amount of manganese than lithium from its geothermal brine. The company anticipates it can achieve those results without crimping its lithium production timeline. They expect to conduct tests on “live” brine sometime this year to explore the subject further.
Follow The Money
Stellantis, for one, has spotted an opportunity. On August 17 the company announced a $100 million-plus investment to help grow the lithium supply project.
Forget the initial projection of 20,000 metric tonnes of lithium carbonate per year. As described by Stellantis, Hell’s Kitchen is “the world’s largest geothermal lithium project with a total resource capacity to produce up to 300,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent.”
“Additionally, the companies expanded the initial supply agreement, which now calls for CTR to supply up to 65,000 metric tons of battery-grade lithium hydroxide monohydrate (LHM) each year over a 10-year contract term,” Stellantis notes. “This new agreement incorporates the original lithium supply agreement signed by both companies in June 2022 for up to 25,000 metric tons of LHM per year.”
If all goes according to plan, Hell’s Kitchen will begin producing LHM for Stellantis in 2027.
The plan could also involve General Motors, which reportedly put up some big bucks back in 2021 to nail down first dibs on the Hells’ Kitchen lithium supply — unless they dropped the idea somewhere along the way. CleanTechnica is reaching out to CRT for an update on that.
A More Sustainable Lithium Supply, That Is
The environmental and human rights issues bedeviling the global lithium supply chain have been well documented, including impacts related to energy consumption, water resources, open pit mining and evaporation lagoons.
The US has a chance to get it right, mainly because very little lithium mining is taking place here at the present time. The only lithium mine currently operating in the US is the Silver Peak mine in Nevada, which dates back to the 1960s.
Now the pressure is on to increase the domestic supply of lithium to meet the growing demand for electric vehicles, and conflicts are already arising. One example is the new Thacker Pass lithium mine in Nevada, where work is under way despite furious pushback from local tribes and ranchers as well as environmentalists.
NASA has also weighed in on the Biden administration’s plans to lease federal lands to boost the domestic lithium supply chain.
“An ancient Nevada lakebed beckons as a vast source of the coveted element needed to produce cleaner electric energy and fight global warming,” the Associated Press reported in June. “But NASA says the same site — flat as a tabletop and undisturbed like none other in the Western Hemisphere — is indispensable for calibrating the razor-sharp measurements of hundreds of satellites orbiting overhead.”
Geothermal brine projects can also involve land use conflicts, but not to the same extent involved in open pit mining. Though plans to co-locate other facilities at the Hell’s Kitchen campus will expand its footprint considerably, the geothermal power plant and lithium supply operation only takes up about 50 acres. In contrast, the Silver Peak lithium mine spans 13,000 acres. The Thacker Pass project involves 6,000 acres of mining activity over a parcel of public land spanning nine square miles, and a proposed lithium mine in North Carolina will include four open pits covering 1,500 acres.
In addition, the Hell’s Kitchen system is designed to run on renewable energy without the need for evaporation lagoons. The spent brine is returned underground.
Recovering lithium from spent EV batteries could also help alleviate some of these issues. Among other recent battery recycling moves, last fall GM put up a stake in Series A financing for the recycling firm Lithion. Stellantis has also firmed up its end-of-life strategy under a joint venture with Galloo, announced in June.
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Image: Hell’s Kitchen geothermal power plant and lithium supply facility with proposed EV battery operations, courtesy of CTR.
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