Gnarly Brine
Nov 3, 2021
Season 1 | Episode 5

Gnarly Brine

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Our journey through the California desert continues. There’s a lot of hope — and millions of dollars — riding on lithium extraction in the Salton Sea. But how close are those dreams to reality?

Our journey through the California desert continues. There’s a lot of hope — and millions of dollars — riding on lithium extraction projects in the Salton Sea. We need lithium for batteries. And we need batteries to transition off of fossil fuels. But how close are those dreams to reality?

This episode, we visit the quiet front-runner in the race for white gold: EnergySource, a renewable energy company with a geothermal plant near the banks of the Salton Sea. 

The company has developed a process to remove lithium from the brine bubbling below ground. It’s called integrated lithium adsorption desorption, or ILiAD. It’s a good name if you love a metaphor — which we do — because like that epic poem by Homer, the ILiAD is kinda in the homestretch of its own battle: to extract lithium from the superhot, corrosive Salton Sea brine. It’s in the pilot phase, but its inventors are confident it’ll scale up. 

“The ILiAD system will take the dirtiest, nastiest brine you put in it and give you back the cleanest, nicest lithium chloride that’s possible,” said Charles Marston, inventor of the ILiAD and an expert in minerals recovery. “I’ve done a lot of things in my career, and I think this is my opus magnum … the greatest work.” 

But before EnergySource can extract and sell lithium on a commercial scale, it’ll have to deal with other challenges, including a war chest of patents dating back to an earlier lithium-recovery project that went bust. The patents cover “pre-treatment” of the brine and could slow things down for the companies racing to extract lithium from the Salton Sea.

The first season of “How We Survive” is about the messy business of finding climate solutions. New episodes are out every Wednesday. Be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app and tell a friend if you’re enjoying the show.

The team

Molly Wood Host
Caitlin Esch Senior Producer
Hayley Hershman Producer
Marque Greene Associate Producer