Lithium and resource dependency

When discussing fossil fuel dependency, the national debate at least on the security front, has focused on how being dependent on Middle Eastern nations for oil threatens national security. The solution from the perspective of many clean energy supporters is to advocate for non fossil fuel sources of energy like wind and solar power. The underlying source of energy in those cases—the shining sun and blowing wind–are free.

But it doesn’t take long to realize that renewable energy brings its own dependencies and security issues. For example, building one type of solar panel technology requires polysilicon, which is sourced to specific areas worldwide, and became an issue in the anti-dumping trade case between the U.S. and China.

But perhaps no raw material in renewables is being more closely watched than lithium, the raw material that is used for batteries in everything from laptops to electric cars (Tesla famously strings together thousands of lithium ion batteries for its Model S). Significant lithium deposits are largely located in South America—Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. The energy storage associated with many renewable energy technologies has some relationship to lithium.

But if foreign lithium dependence could be eliminated, that would be a boon for the domestic battery industry, which is finally showing signs of life thanks to Tesla. Simbol Materials, a startup located near the chronicled Salton Sea in Southern California, is working on extracting lithium from geothermal brine that is being pumped to the surface by a nearby geothermal plant.

The startup has extracted a few hundred tons of lithium product but says it could scale to 15,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent a year. Having a domestic source of lithium could further propel the nascent lithium ion battery industry in the U.S. and lower risks of dependency, which aren’t merely security risks but economic ones in the event of price spikes, trade disputes, or supply issues.

As always, the cost of extraction matters since Simbol Materials competes against the global price of lithium. And the possibility of a novel non lithium based battery technology breaking through is another risk, though likely pretty small. Still, the prospect of a domestic source of lithium is attractive for economic and security reasons, and if the company can get through the commercialization stage, we might just have one.