Lithium might seem like an unlikely object for the limelight, but those steeped in the mineral commodities market are not surprised. The need for lithium has grown exponentially in recent years. It plays a vital role in our high-tech world, particularly with rechargeable lithium batteries, which drive the growing market for portable electronic devices, electric tools, vehicles, and grid storage solutions. Global demand for lithium is expected to increase by 500% by 2050 due to the widespread adoption of these technologies.1  Lithium is a crucial element in the clean energy supply chain; a reliable, diversified lithium supply is a top priority for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

In South America’s lithium-rich Atacama Desert, lithium exports come from salt deserts, or salares. Salty groundwater is pumped to the surface and evaporates from large surface basins, leaving behind residual salts, including lithium. Though cheap and effective, this process is heavily water consumptive in a part of the world where water is precious.2  It also has the potential for toxic chemicals to leak into the potable water supply.3  In places like Australia, lithium ore is most frequently mined by open pit: Miners extract the mineral by digging a large pit or quarry.4  These operations typically generate waste rock and air pollutants and can affect the groundwater chemistry of area aquifers if not handled appropriately.5 

Geothermal energy, however, presents a solution—quite literally. Hot salty water, or geothermal brine, is pumped to the surface and converted to a gas that turns a turbine to generate electricity from heat within the Earth. In addition to electricity production, these geothermal brines can yield lithium, brought up in the brine solution from thousands of feet underground. Geothermal electricity production is already environmentally friendly: It has a small physical footprint, is renewable and weather-independent, and is virtually carbon free. In repurposing the extracted fluids already used for electricity production as a lithium source, we can put domestic lithium onto the market while producing electricity simultaneously, all with a minimal environmental footprint.

John L. Featherstone geothermal power plant

Evaporation ponds dot the Atacama Desert landscape in northern Chile—although rich in lithium deposits, the extraction process requires constructing myriad surface basins across vast square footage. 

John L. Featherstone geothermal power plant

Conversely, geothermal power plants, such as the one shown here near California’s Salton Sea, utilize a small physical footprint; capturing lithium from geothermal fluid is less impactful on the immediate environment.

John L. Featherstone geothermal power plant image courtesy of Energy Source.

Despite a domestic resource potential of more than 600,000 tons, which currently exceeds annual U.S. demand and could transition the U.S. from a net importer to a net exporter, there is only one plant currently extracting lithium from brines in the United States.6  Dr. Pat Dobson and Dr. Will Stringfellow, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, co-authored a retrospective report in 2020 on decades of DOE-funded studies of lithium and rare-earth elements extraction from geothermal brines.

“Techno-economic studies indicate that geothermal operators could benefit substantially from a hybrid approach that includes lithium capture,” Dobson said. “Large lithium resources have been identified mainly in the Salton Sea area [of California], and current research could yield further resources. The key challenge now is to develop the science of extracting lithium from geothermal brines in a cost-competitive and environmentally friendly manner.”

As noted in a companion report authored by Ian Warren at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a suite of lithium extraction technologies is near commercial-scale demonstration. Over the next several years, geothermal operators in the Salton Sea area are expected to demonstrate these techniques in an effort to achieve economic viability.

DOE Offices Expand the Push for Critical Materials

DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO) launched the American-Made Geothermal Lithium Extraction Prize earlier this year to build the mineral extraction workforce and get the entrepreneurial community involved. This $4 million prize competition consists of three phases – concept, design, and testing—to fast-track improvements to lithium recovery profitability. Phase one of the competition is underway with phase two set to begin later this year; winning teams are expected to be announced by early 2023.

“Our entrepreneurial community can introduce new ideas around getting more American lithium safely to market, which helps us to succeed in the critical materials7 space,” Dr. Susan Hamm, GTO Director, noted. “This prize taps into new perspectives, new economics, and fresh ideas, all with a green mission.”

Current and potential geothermal power plants are concentrated along the southeastern coastline of the Salton Sea, in southern California. These locations coincide with high concentrations of lithium and other critical materials. As the Salton Sea continues to recede, the potential increases for expanding geothermal operations and capturing greater quantities of minerals.

Current and potential geothermal power plants are concentrated along the southeastern coastline of the Salton Sea, in southern California. These locations coincide with high concentrations of lithium and other critical materials. As the Salton Sea continues to recede, the potential increases for expanding geothermal operations and capturing greater quantities of minerals.

Image courtesy of Renewable Energy.

DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO), as part of a wider $50 million in research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) selections announced earlier this year, has expanded the innovation ecosystem with a selection for field validation and demonstration at the Salton Sea. Additionally, AMO is exploring next-generation extraction, separation, and processing technologies for critical materials; AMO-funded work at the Critical Materials Institute, a DOE Energy Innovation Hub, also suggests novel approaches to lithium extraction and conversion from geothermal brines are both environmentally and economically favorable.

Pushing RD&D further along the supply chain, DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office supports the Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize (with AMO) to collect spent lithium-based batteries. VTO has also established the ReCell Lithium Battery Recycling R&D Center, which is focused on developing innovative, efficient recycling technologies to cost-effectively recover critical battery materials and reintroduce them into the materials supply chain. These efforts aim to grow a sustainable advanced battery recycling industry by developing economic and environmentally sound recycling processes that industry can adopt for lithium-ion and future battery chemistries.

Establishing a domestic supply chain for lithium-based batteries requires a national commitment to both solving breakthrough scientific challenges for new materials and developing a manufacturing base that meets the demands of the growing electric vehicle and stationary grid storage markets. DOE recently announced actions to bolster the domestic supply chain for advanced batteries, including the release of the National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries, developed by the Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries. This blueprint lays out five critical goals and key actions to guide federal agency collaboration to secure the nation’s long-term economic competitiveness and create good-paying jobs for American workers, while supporting the Biden Administration’s decarbonization goals.

These efforts across DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy align with its three-pronged critical materials strategy of diversifying supply chains, developing substitutes, and improving reuse and recycling—all in a safe, sustainable, and environmentally just way. DOE coordinates, where possible, with other federal agencies and departments to build resilient, diverse, and secure supply chains for critical minerals and materials. 

There are numerous historical and current investments that converge on lithium extraction solutions. In the near-term, DOE investments will align with those of other federal agencies and offices to put domestic lithium on the market, more renewable energy on the grid, and guide the U.S. toward a future where we can support our burgeoning renewable economy with the resources it needs to succeed.

1. World Bank. 2020. “Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of The Clean Energy Transition.”

2. B. Jerez, I. Garces, R. Torres. 2021. “Lithium extractivism and water injustices in the Salar de Atacama, Chile: The colonial shadow of green electromobility.”

3. B. Bustos-Gallardo, M. Prieto, G. Bridge. 2021. “Harvesting Lithium: water, brine, and the industrial dynamics of production in the Salar de Atacama.” 

4. U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 2020. Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project.

5. European Commission. Extractive Waste Directive – Mining Waste. 

6. U.S. Geological Survey. Lithium Data Sheet: Mineral Commodity Summaries 2020. 

7. Any non-fuel mineral, element, substance, or material that the Secretary of Energy determines has a high risk of a supply chain disruption and serves an essential function in one or more energy technologies, including technologies that produce, transmit, store, and conserve energy; or a critical mineral as defined by the Secretary of Interior.