Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Andrew Burger headshot

EV Battery Staple to Be Produced at Geothermal Site

California's Simbol Materialsis starting domestic commercial production of the world's highest-purity lithium carbonate, which is used as an electrolyte for electric vehicle batteries and other energy storage devices, the company announced Sept. 28.

The lithium carbonate produced from the company's 500-metric ton facility near the Salton Sea in California's Imperial Valley will outdo other sources of not only lithium, but manganese and zinc, in terms of quality and performance, helping ensure that growth of clean energy and technologies in the US continues. Simbol is preparing to extract manganese and zinc, as well as lithium, from the Salton Sea's geothermal brines, according to the Pleasanton-based company.

With the start of commercial production at its Salton Sea facility, Simbol joins MolyCorp as the only two commercial producers of rare earths in the US. Assuring a ready, cost-effective supply of lithium and other so-called rare earth minerals is crucial to ramping up production of electric vehicles (EVs). At present, China produces 95% of global rare earth mineral production, and it's been cutting back on exports, as well as nationalizing the operations of its rare earth mineral producers.

Simbol is making use of what it says is a "breakthrough" technology for extracting lithium, manganese and zinc found in geothermal brines.

Also significantly, its technology can be incorporated into geothermal power plants, making geothermal power an even more attractive and cost-effective source of clean, renewable baseload electrical power.

“Simbol Materials’ goal is to fundamentally transform the critical materials supply chain in support of
clean technology,” said Luka Erceg, Simbol Materials' CEO. “With the electric vehicle battery industry set to take off, the demand for premium quality lithium, manganese and zinc – building blocks for the next generation of energy storage, including EV batteries – requires an urgent and high performance solution, one that Simbol Materials provides.”

Simbol's guiding mission is an ambitious one built on Triple Bottom Line principles. The company's extraction process eliminates the need for invasive mining or evaporation ponds that require large areas of land, water and energy use. Moreover, its extraction process produces "zero waste," according to the company, while consuming CO2, waste water and other emissions from geothermal power plants.

Consumers of rare earth minerals in the US, Europe and Japan are particularly keen to break China's stranglehold on production and refining. Simbol's already laid out plans to expand the Salton Sea facility three-fold, with the expansion expected to break ground in late 2012.

Japan's Itochu Corp. is a lead investor in Simbol, as is the venture capital firm of Mohr Davidow. “The new facility and expansion plans positions Simbol Materials as the most competitive producer of
high purity lithium and other lithium compounds and derivatives that are critical to electric vehicle
batteries and clean energy,” said Itochu Corp. Chemicals Division's Takashi Sunada. Itochu will act as Simbol's exclusive sales partner in Asia.

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

Read more stories by Andrew Burger

More stories from Energy & Environment