An environmentally friendly lithium mine in the disastrous Salton Sea

Originally published at: An environmentally friendly lithium mine in the disastrous Salton Sea | Boing Boing


This is a slowly unfolding catastrophe for the humans/animals/fish that reside in and near the Salton Sea. My Dear Wife and I used to ride motorcycles the entire circumference of the sea, now we avoid it like a Chernobyl fallout epicenter.


The idea of pulling rare earth elements out of sludge/brine has been a thing for a while. Most potential US sources for this stuff (also a lot of uranium!) is bound up in these sort if alkali flats and salt pans.

The issue is it’s neither a good idea, nor any kind of efficient to classic pit mine that stuff out.

So the idea is to flood them, pump the water through a system that leaches out the useful stuff. Then send it back into the system “cleaned” of your lithiums and uraniums abd other ums.

Problem with that is it’s kinda a bad idea to flood these areas. It eats up a lot of water in place where that’s a problem, it causes erosion issues, and pretty shortly it nets you a Salton Sea situation.

The hook here is the damage is already done there. So there’s a really interesting opportunity to either do it in a way that meshes with an improvement project. Or use it as a test bed for how to do this without fucking everything up.


I watched a program on YouTube a while back that claimed that there use to be a military air base nearby, and that numerous aircraft and crews were lost in the Salton Sea.

I think it also suggested that some atomic weapon had been lost there and never recovered.


We will know all that very soon, it’s drying out at an alarming rate. Some places you have to walk a mile before you get to the waters edge, all the while you are breathing the toxic dust swirling around in the air.

BTW: the instance of ear/eye/and throat/lung disease is the highest in the Western States in this area, essentially making it an un-declared deadly poisonous super fund site.


One of the things that always geeked me out about the area is that all those dead and dessicated birds and fish you see photos of were essentially mummified alive by the salts.


Is there salty water underground there? Isn’t that the water table - clean’ish water? And they’re pumping IN salt water to extract salt water? Fracking in a way?

Slimy viscous liquids being forced into a fault line? Hey Lex, hold off on that nuke - you might get your new coastal shoreline soon enough.


Every few months we get another declaration, California will invest some huge amount of money in a ‘solution’ and then $2MM is invested in a study.

They used the Salton Sea as a place to drop early nukes to improve their accuracy. The USG said they didn’t use radioactive material while minimally using depleted uranium to balance the bombshells. This is simply one of the MANY oddities of the Sea, and hardly one of its most toxic features. The decades of runoff from the over-watered farms left poisonous sediment on the bottom of the lake. As the water recedes it exposes more and more dust that blows into local communities.


I’ve spotted coyotes with the same affliction, like a weird science fiction flick props that got left behind after the movie shoot was over.


Gateway to Lemuria? well that’s another win! at least for my cult.


Hot lithium-rich brine is about to be tapped in Cornwall to produce geothermal energy and lithium carbonate. The water contains about 220mg lithium per litre with very low contamination.

There are also examinations going on to extract lithium micas, like phlogopite, from the massive white spoil heaps left over from kaolin (china clay) mining that formed the almost alpine landscape of mid-Cornwall despite the best attempts to cover them with vegetation.

In related developments, the first geothermal well in Cornwall drilled to 4.5km blew in at the beginning of this month:


The area is a desert salt pan. The result of millions of years of mineral deposits from an ancient inland sea. Any water above bed rock should already be brine.

And the “sea” there only currently exists due to a mistake in diverting a river in the 20’s and agricultural run off. Naturally it was last wet in the 1500s, and seems to have last been a full on inland sea thousands of years back.

The “salt” in question isn’t necessarily sodium chloride, or at least not exclusively. But heavier, often toxic salts of minerals like lithium and uranium.

That’s the source of the toxic dust. Flooding the area loosened and dissolved the deposits. Now that the water is evaporated away it’s redeposited, but loose. Where winds can whip it around or runoff can drive it into other areas.

If they’re tapping fresh water from further down. Then they could be adding fresh water to the system with out further tapping or diverting the Colorado further. If they’re stripping stuff out of the existing water, the you’d need to add less water in the long run to maintain it as a wetland. So it might be a better use of that water than nearby farming.

The run off hasn’t helped. But a lot of that stuff weren’t exactly benign to begin with.

Heavily diluted it’s just salt water. Concentrated it’s a bunch of heavy metal goop.


The max depth of the Salton Sea is about 40 feet - at the deepest. Losing anything there seems unlikely. Disregarding something that has fallen in seems likely. Hm.

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Both? if it works, it’d be an interesting win-win.


I think the hook is what constitutes the improvement project.

Fundamentally the source of the problem is that there’s water, animals and people here at all. And the “damage” starts with flooding it.

The hands off, restore it as it was thing to do is let it dry up entirely. And it’s well on its way. But there’s all the current problems with that.

Turning it into a sustained wetland of any kind involves sending more water in. Which is a problem, cause water is in increasingly short supply. And doing so kind of involves seriously diverting the course of the Colorado river through the valley. Which is how it’s there in the first place, the river has periodically followed that path in the deep past. But that’ll wreak havoc along the existing river course, and there are erosion issues. It also means you can’t use that water elsewhere.

A lot of plans to “fix” the situation are inherently rooted in nostalgia for the brief window where this was a nice place to visit (around 50 years or so). And depending on the direction you go in it’s either letting the current situation play out till it’s OK in a couple hundred years. Or just kicking off a different disaster.

That’s why this is interesting. If they’re pulling up water from way deep. Below the current surface water cycle. Cleaning it. And adding it in. They just created a new source of water to sustain the wetland.

If they’re pulling shit out of the existing system. Then long term that means less water is needed to stablize the wetland. And if it’s economically important enough to displace some of the farming. Then it could be a better use of limited water than those farms.

You could keep it adequately flooded long term and use less water than the broader area does currently.

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As others have noted, it’s an ancient sea bed, not an ancient lake bed. It’s an interesting place underground - there are fresh water aquifers and, apparently, beneath the fresh water aquifers a deeper salty mineral water aquifer. And it is geologically active - there are mud geysers and other interesting things there. It’s a few miles from the San Andreas fault.

The article says they will pull high-lithium content water from the hot, deep, mineral laden aquifer beneath the sea, not from the sea itself. The hot water source is obviously part of the geologically active subsurface. And after extracting the lithium, the article says that they’ll return brine to the aquifer beneath the sea, and cleaner water into the sea. I doubt if that will be enough new water to save the Salton Sea, which is slowly evaporating away.

I lived near there long ago, and it has just gotten steadily smaller and stinkier. We used to go fishing in that toxic waste, and actually ate our catches - there were no warnings posted, and the grownups seemed oblivious to the dangers. I don’t think that is the reason that I have three arms and two heads now, though - that is probably from the nuclear testing upwind in Nevada.


Interestingly… right now on google maps there is a flash flood warning for the salton sea area…

soo they will mine the lithium for the smartphone batteries so you can be stressed from the anti-social media and then take lithium to help with the mental stress… seems like a win win for corporate america


I assume you never came across this little beauty.


Discovery of the Lost City of Sea Monkeys!

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They are already doing liquid lithium extraction in Nevada so for a very clear picture of what this process looks like check out this news piece: