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Simbol Materials to 'mine' lithium from the Salton Sea

Simbol Materials launched commercial operations at a factory that will eventually extract lithium from the discharge brine created by geothermal plants operating near the Salton Sea.

Simbol Materials launched commercial operations this week at a factory that will eventually borrow discharge brine from geothermal plants operating near the Salton Sea in California and then extract three critical energy elements -- lithium, manganese and zinc -- before sending it back underground.

If successful, Simbol Materials could reduce the United States' reliance on imports of lithium, an increasingly important element that's used in a host of modern day devices including pharmaceuticals, laptop batteries and electric car batteries. The U.S. was a primary of producer of lithium during the Cold War, but mining of the element has dropped off since the 1990s. Worldwide lithium production is now dominated by Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, according to the American Physical Society.

The facility will produce lithium for use in advanced batteries and other component used in electric vehicles. The company's demonstration plant is currently operating and will be followed by commercial-scale plants to produce lithium, manganese and zinc materials. The company expects to break ground in late 2012, according to a release.

Extracting lithium from brine isn't new, particularly outside of the U.S. But Simbol stands out because it's figured out how to accelerate the production process considerably -- and make it cleaner. For example, Chemetall Foote has a lithium production site in Silver Peak, Nevada where it pumps brine into open salt ponds and waits months for the water to evaporate before "mining" the lithium. The process not only takes a long time, it uses a lot of water as well.

Simbol has developed a filtering process that cuts that time down to a few minutes. And it doesn't need evaporation ponds, which require significant land, water and energy.

How it works

Simbol has set up shop near the Salton Sea, an area already know for its source of geothermal energy. Geothermal plants tap heat deep underground to make steam, which is used to turn a turbine and generate  electricity.  Typically, the waste brine steam, a byproduct of the process, would be injected back underground. But this Salton Sea brine happens to be loaded with  lithium, manganese and zinc.

Simbol developed equipment that attaches to a geothermal plant (see illustration below) so it can temporarily capture the brine. The brine is pushed through the filter, where it extracts and separates the important elements and then sends the leftovers back underground.  The process eliminates most of the wastewater that is typically generated at geothermal plants.

Photo: Flickr user Caveman Chuck Coker

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com