IMPERIAL COUNTY, Calif. — The U.S. faces a supply chain crisis on the resource powering our cell phones, laptops, and electric cars. Producing about 1 percent of lithium domestically, America relies on countries like China for the silvery-white metal.
With known deposits on U.S. soil, large companies are betting on one California region becoming known as a gold mine for lithium.
“We’re almost like in heaven when it comes to lithium extraction," said Imperial County Supervisor Jesus Eduardo Escobar. “You're looking at anywhere from $500 billion to a trillion, as far as the net value of that lithium that we have here in Imperial County. And that doesn't include the value-added services, the manufacturing services, that trickle-down effect of having employees working here in Imperial County."
A border community in the southeast corner of California, the Imperial Valley has long relied on agriculture to support its economy.
“Most of our younger generation doesn't have that opportunity to come back because there really is no industry here," said Escobar. “Back in the back in the 50s and 60s, the Salton Sea was viewed as a vacation area. Tourists came from all over the world, actually. It was a Hollywood Mecca.”
Today, the Salton Sea is an abandoned wasteland. Contaminated by agricultural runoff, the evaporating sea exposes residents to toxic dust.
Escobar believes economic salvation is within the county lines, thousands of feet underground.
With an estimated 15 million metric tons of lithium, scientists believe the untapped renewable resource could meet one-third of the global demand.
“I was studying lithium before lithium was cool," says Bill Tong, Vice Provost at San Diego State University (SDSU) and a professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
To be independent, he says the U.S. needs to have its own source of lithium in the country.
“And the potential market is humongous," said Tong.
He says the valley has a superpower for getting it out of the ground sustainably.
Typically mixed in with rock, Imperial County's lithium deposits are in hot fluids deep underground. This hot brine is already being pumped to the surface and converted into energy by geothermal plants.
"Combining geothermal and lithium extraction into one process. That’s why I like to say it’s killing two birds with one stone," said Tong. "And then it doesn’t hurt the environment as much as the old-fashioned mining.”
Once lithium is extracted, the hot brine is pumped back into the ground.
As private companies spend millions on technology to remove lithium from the brine, the university is training a new generation of scientists for the industry at its Imperial Valley campus.
"It’s still being developed, it’s still being optimized," said Tong. "We’ve been there for 60 years, and we're ready to help with all the science and technology and skilled workforce."
The federal government is investing millions into securing a domestic supply chain for lithium and other minerals, saying it’s a matter of national security.
However, some proposals are facing pushback.
An open-pit mining project in Nevada has drawn protests from ranchers, environmentalists, and Native American tribes, with concerns over water use and protecting sacred land.
But with unemployment rates in the double digits in Imperial County, the region is embracing the 'white gold' rush. Advocates say it could bring hundreds, even thousands of jobs to the area.
“This is our asset, and we’re going to work hard to make sure that our residents fully understand and fully benefit from what God gave us.”