GM is investing in a California lithium extraction project

General Motors is investing in domestically sourced lithium. The company said Friday it became the first investor in an Australian company’s project to extract the mineral, a critical component of electric vehicle batteries, from the Salton Sea Geothermal Field near Los Angeles. The automaker will have first rights on lithium produced by Controlled Thermal Resources’ “Hell’s Kitchen” lithium extraction project.

The Hell’s Kitchen project is expected to begin producing lithium in 2024. That output would be used in GM’s Ultium battery cells, which are being manufactured as part of a joint venture with LG Energy Solution, after undergoing validation and testing. While Tim Grewe, GM’s general director of electrification strategy and cell engineering, declined to provide specifics on how much lithium GM will likely receive, he said the company expects “it’ll be a significant amount of [GM’s] North American lithium.”

GM and other automakers will need a lot of lithium if they want to meet their electrification targets. For GM, that includes transitioning away from internal combustion engines entirely by 2035. But that wide-scale transition will also likely mean greater competition – not only for customers’ dollars, but for the source minerals that compose essential parts like batteries.

In general, lithium is produced either via hard rock mining or by extracting the mineral from brine deposits. Both methods have been criticized for their impacts on the environment. What makes CTR’s project stand out is that it will use renewable geothermal energy – produced from the Salton Sea Geothermal Field, a huge area in the Imperial Valley that’s already home to 11 geothermal power stations – to process the lithium.

In addition to being powered by renewable energy, CTR says the project uses a closed-loop direct extraction process that returns spent brine to its underground source and leaves no production tailings, a kind of waste reside from mining.

Most of the world’s lithium is sourced from a small number of countries, predominately Chile, Australia, China and Argentina. There is only one lithium production site in the United States, a brine operation in Nevada owned by chemical manufacturing giant Albemarle. But there’s been an increased focus on boosting domestic production in the mineral in recent years, driven largely by two trends: the anticipated demand for the mineral, which is expected to rapidly increase due in part to the transition to battery electric vehicles; and a bipartisan focus on keeping the U.S. competitive in emerging technologies.

According to the California Energy Commission, as much as one-third of the world’s current demand for lithium could be found in the state’s lithium deposits. The CTR project is one of many aimed at extracting lithium from the Salton Sea’s vast brine fields.