General Motors has announced it is investing in a lithium extraction operation being developed by Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR) called Hell's Kitchen Lithium and Power. The goal is to secure a "low-cost" domestic supply of lithium for the automaker's Ultium battery cells. It's a pretty interesting and attractive proposition.
Lithium supply has long been a point of contention in electric-vehicle-future conversations. Some years ago, there were plenty who argued that there just wasn't enough supply. More recently, the focus has been on environmental damage caused by water-intensive mining projects, particularly on the salt flats of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile.
Hardrock mining of lithium-bearing spodumene can also have environmental consequences. Extracting the mineral is energy-intensive and create tailings, for instance. The Hell's Kitchen development at Imperial Valley's Salton Sea Geothermal Field, avoids the water and energy issues, as well as tailings from initial production.
As you can see in the video above, it relies on a closed loop system – the brine pumped from the earth is returned. It also has a renewable geothermal energy-producing component. According to CTR's website, it hopes to produce 49.9 MW of power during its first stage of development, which would be enough to sustain its extraction and processing needs. Eventually, it could produce as much as 1,100 MW of renewable energy, some of which could supply baseload power for California's grid.
As an early major investor, General Motors gets first dibs on the produced lithium. If the resource lives up to its hype, it also has "an option for a multi-year relationship." The automaker is keeping mum on the specifics of the size of the investment, but does say it is a multi-million dollar amount.
CTR projects the site will produce 20,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide per year in its first stage, beginning in 2024. Future projections are as high as 300,000 metric tons. GM says a "significant amount" of battery-grade lithium hydroxide and carbonate for its electric vehicles could come from the site.
If an electric car holds about 10 kg of lithium (estimates vary) within its battery cells, this first stage output could supply enough of the mineral to build packs for approximately two million vehicles. For its part, though, GM does say it's still too early to project potential volumes.
While the promise of an affordable, environmentally-friendlier domestic supply of lithium from the project is hugely exciting, the investment is not without its risks. A GM spokesperson points out to InsideEVs that "maturity and high-volume production still have to be proven out with this form of lithium extraction," but it believes the technology has a lot of potential.