As many of you already know, I’ve been studying and test driving a number of EVs (electric vehicles) lately that could eventually become TVs (tow vehicles) or Toads (towed vehicles) for RV owners. While there are tons of important questions to be answered about the actual mileage range while towing, where to get recharged on the road and in campgrounds, and actual towing capabilities, I’ve been thinking a lot about who is building the batteries for these showing up on more and more television commercials.
Yes, you’ve seen them from all of the vehicle manufacturers including Ford, GM, Volvo and even Volkswagen. Of course, many won’t be available until 2023, with some possibly delivered in the first quarter of 2022. But everyone with skin in the game is showing how they’ll be ready for 2030 when 50% of vehicles sold in the U.S. will be required to be zero emission (fully electric).
But where is all that lithium going to come from?
And that’s the billion dollar question. Virtually every battery for your handheld electronic devices uses lithium chemistry. And so it is with every EV on the drawing board and many RVs with solar panels equipped for boondocking. For now, at least, lithium iron phosphate batteries are the leading battery chemistry that can cram 100 kwH of storage in a reasonably sized package that will fit in an electric vehicle. So without lithium to make these batteries, the EV manufacturing industry would grind to a standstill.
This article will explore where we currently get our lithium for these batteries, and how dirty that mining process is. Plus, we’ll discuss the possible supply issues with depending on other countries for 98% of our lithium batteries. What if someone turned off the supply lines? We would be in a world of hurt! And I’m going to report on a possible solution to the lithium conundrum, so please read on.
The future is coming faster than you think!
Now, I want you all to jump in my time machine for a trip to 1905 in Southern California. Yes, I could have used a DeLorean, but my Flux Capacitor is on the blink. However, I do have a Jules Verne Time Machine in the lab, which I think has a lot more style. Let’s take a time trip to the days we would dam rivers without worrying about the potential ecological impact.
But what does that have to do with the future of lithium for electric vehicle and RV batteries? Read on to find out…
The Accidental Sea
The Salton Sea was accidentally formed in 1905 after the Colorado River topped a dike and for the next few years flooded a basin in the desert, earning it the nickname “The Accidental Sea.” It ended up becoming a lake some 15 miles wide by 35 miles long covering 343 square miles.
By the 1950s, it had become a tourist destination, with expensive resorts on the shore drawing thousands of tourists annually to fish and boat there, including celebrity visitors such a Frank Sinatra. But the party didn’t last long, and it soon became an ecological disaster.
The big storms
But huge storms in the ’70s destroyed most of the marinas and resorts, and flooding wrecked many homes in the former resort town of Bombay Beach. And since the river water stopped flowing into this artificial lake in 1995, it’s been continually shrinking and becoming more saline every year. Since 2003, this 324-square-mile lake has shrunk by 40 square miles, exposing vast swaths of dry lakebed with microscopic wind-blown dust that contributes to poor air quality and asthma for the residents along with other respiratory diseases. In 2020, Palm Springs Life magazine published this: “The Salton Sea derives its fame as the biggest environmental disaster in California history.”
In short, the Salton Sea became an ecological disaster of apocalyptic proportions, which now kills birds by the thousands that fly over it. And it’s only been getting worse for the last 25 years.
Fast forward to 2020
Well, as I mentioned in the lead-in, the one thing that all EVs and RVs have in common is the need for a lot of batteries. And currently the most promising battery chemistry for them is lithium iron phosphate. Note that the main ingredient is lithium, which is in short supply in the U.S. Yup, we import most of our lithium and lithium cells from other countries that may not be geopolitically stable or friendly to us. If the lithium importing were to stop, then so would most of our production of lithium batteries for EVs and RVs.
Where does our lithium come from?
Currently, we do very little lithium mining in the United States (we mine less than 2% of the world’s requirements). We import most of what we need from Latin America and Australia, with most of the processing and lithium cell production taking place in China. And because of a lack of EPA standards in those other countries, lithium mining and battery production create a huge amount of pollution. This double-header of depending on other countries for our needed lithium and creating more ecological disaster areas due to current mining techniques are two of the main talking points made by many pundits who hate the idea of electric vehicle production being mandated over the next decade in the U.S. And I don’t blame them at all…
The Salton Sea has a secret stash of lithium…
It seems that the Salton Sea is sitting on possibly the largest geothermal energy reserve in the world. There are a number of companies already building plants to directly generate electricity from pumping the brine water though the underground aquifers. But something really interesting was discovered in the leftover brine from geothermal energy production that was going to be recirculated though the underground. It had picked up lithium along the way.
The Salton Sea Lithium Extraction Project
All you need to extract lithium from this 324- square-mile dead sea is hot salt water (brine) to leach it from the underground reserves. Since the Salton Sea is one of the world’s largest reserves of brine, plus it has lots of extra heat from the geothermal plants already built on the southern edge of this artificial lake, it’s a straightforward leap to lithium mining and battery production in the U.S.
And the fact that this is a closed-loop recycling system means that the pollution from traditional lithium mining methods could be reduced by 98%. That’s right. If this works as envisioned, it could reduce pollution from mining to 2% of current technologies.
How much lithium is there?
Well, estimates are that the Salton Sea could produce 7 times the amount of lithium needed in the U.S., plus supply 1/3 of the lithium needed by the rest of the world. That’s right. The Salton Sea could produce 600,000 tons of lithium per year, which is fantastic since the entire world’s production of lithium was a mere 85,000 tons in all of 2019. If this works out, instead of the United States relying on other countries for this needed resource, we could become a leading exporter of lithium to the world.
But wait, there’s more…!
The plan is to also build lithium cell manufacturing plants in the same area, which would produce an economic boon to the area residents who have suffered with some of the highest unemployment rates for decades due to the death of the resorts beginning in the ’70s. So instead of being a giant ecological disaster with no end in site, this could become a White Gold area that would assure America of a continuous supply of lithium that couldn’t be stopped by other countries. I like energy independence, and this is one way to make it happen for electric vehicles.
When will this happen?
Berkshire Hathaway (Warren Buffett’s geothermal energy project on the Salton Sea) is retooling their plant to be able to help extract lithium. And GM along with other EV manufacturers have just announced a huge investment in a pilot plant which could begin commercial lithium extraction by 2024. So this isn’t some pipe dream that’s always 50 years in the future. It’s happening right now.
What am I doing about this?
Well, in addition to studying how this all works and preparing for interviews of the engineers doing this, I’ve proposed to Volkswagen that they loan me their new I.D. Buzz EV Microbus for a trip from Maryland to the Salton Sea in 2022. This will allow me to discover how well the EV charging infrastructure is coming along, and I’ll be gathering real-world data along the trip.
Since their tag line for the I.D. Buzz is “It’s Okay to Say Groovy, Again”, I’ve proposed that Volkswagen let me cover an I.D. Buzz in ’60s Flower Power decals, and stop at KOA campgrounds along the way, teaching about EV technology and playing ’60s music with my best friend and guitar player of nearly 50 years, Karl.
Yes, Karl and I were playing ’60s music in the ’60s, so this would be a great opportunity to perform some of my favorite tunes from groups like the Beatles, the Monkees, Donovan, the Zombies, and lots more… So grab your tambourine and stay for the retro hippy party. I might even dig out my bell bottoms and tie-dyed T-shirts.
In addition to lithium availability, there are a lot more questions we need to address about the future on not only EVs, but for renewable energy in general. So I’m studying everything from wind turbines, to photocell farms, to wave power, to safer nuclear reactors.
And I’ll also be studying power distribution, EV charging, and home power backup. In short, I’m like a kid in an energy candy shop. This is going to be a wild ride, and I’ll do my best to decipher what it all means. Stay tuned for wind energy next.
Let’s play safe (music) out there!
Mike Sokol is an electrical and professional sound expert with 50+ years in the industry. His excellent book RV Electrical Safety is available at Amazon.com. For more info on Mike’s qualifications as an electrical expert, click here.
Email me at mike (at) noshockzone.org with your questions.
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