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Gnarly Brine
Nov 3, 2021
Season 1 | Episode 5

Gnarly Brine

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.

How We Survive, episode 5, “Gnarly Brine” transcript

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.

Molly Wood: Sometimes in business, things get ugly. Like-

Eric Spomer: Coming after me personally for a lot of money and trying to get me thrown in federal prison. 

Molly Wood: What? 

Eric Spomer: I should really be careful here.

Molly Wood: Eric Spomer is the CEO of Energy Source, a renewable energy company with a geothermal power plant near the Salton Sea.

It’s arguably the frontrunner out of the three companies hoping to extract lithium from super hot brine found just under the earth’s crust in this part of Southern California.

Last episode was all about the hopes and dreams for a new industry that combines lithium extraction with clean geothermal energy.

But just like that bubbling hot brine hidden below the desert floor, there are long-simmering rivalries out here just waiting to burst to the surface.   

Eric tells us – 

Eric Spomer: There’s been a lot of kind of ugly history related to all this.

Molly Wood: With so much positivity and hope about Salton Sea lithium all over the region, there’s still an ongoing battle ​​over who will control some of the key technology for getting that lithium.

That battle goes back to the late 2000s.

Back then, Eric and Energy Source had partnered with another company on a lithium project and the whole thing went bust.

Eric Spomer: There was some litigation.

Molly Wood: A long court battle, a court appointed receiver.

The company changed hands,

Eric Spomer: And when that happened, they came after us and said we stole things. 

Molly Wood: Stole things like trade secrets and assets.

It got bad. 

Eric Spomer: And I actually got pulled off an international flight by Homeland Security because I had become a kind of threat. 

Molly Wood: Yes. Pulled off a flight by the Department of Homeland Security – and apparently, threats that he would end up in federal prison. 

Molly Wood: Thrown in federal prison? For what?

Eric Spomer: Stealing nuclear lithium secrets and selling them to the Mexicans. 

Molly Wood: Stealing. nuclear. lithium. Secrets. and selling them. to the Mexicans. 

Eric Spomer: Which is the thing, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as nuclear lithium secrets.

Molly Wood: We couldn’t find a record of the incident, and this seems to have been basically a hardball tactic that ended up as mostly a good story – despite the inconvenience and embarrassment. But no one really denies that things got more than a little heated out in the desert back then. 

As for the nuclear thing, 

Eric Spomer: We found out later that they do use a certain isotope of lithium in nuclear reactors in the water. I guess.

Who knew?

Eric Spomer: That’s about all I know about it. But, we wanted to make lithium for batteries.

Molly Wood: The battle went on for years, and it left scars – low-key grudges, for sure – but also, it laid the seeds of an intellectual property battle. A treasure trove of patents that, according to their owners, cover a key part of the process of getting lithium out of Salton Sea brine.

And whoever can get around them, or cut a deal, will leap even farther ahead in the rush for that white gold. 

Eric Spomer: We’re in a world where people are seeing dollar signs with, you know, 12 zeros behind it. And it doesn’t always bring out the best in people.

Molly Wood: Lot below the surface right? 

I’m Molly Wood. You’re listening to How We Survive about how finding solutions to the climate crisis is a messy business.

This is episode 6: Gnarly Brine. 

Last episode, we told you about the companies who see a vision of a sustainable future for lithium production on the banks of the Salton Sea. 

And the people in this region, the Imperial Valley, who are really hopeful about that vision. 

So today, we’re going to continue our road trip through the California desert … to investigate how close these dreams are to reality. 

We’ll visit that front-runner, Energy Source, and their unlikely invention for lithium extraction – a magic box they hope will transform the industry.

We’ll look at a spectacular failure of the past, a ghost that’s haunting all of Lithium Valley to this day in the form of this war-chest of patents. 

And there’s more than a little bit of business drama.

Alex Grant: It’s like, it’s like a telenovela.

Molly Wood: Alex Grant is a technology adviser in the lithium industry. He’s watching this all play out closely given how high the stakes are for the industry and the planet.  

Because remember,  most batteries today require lithium. The energy transition requires batteries.

And extracting lithium from geothermal brine is promising, has a lower carbon footprint than mining, and everyone wants it to succeed.

If they can just get past the ghosts.  

All right, let’s start our drama with the ghost. 

I’m going to tell you what happened to a company called Simbol.

If you ask people around here, you get versions of the same answer

Charles Marston: They appeared to be very close to their ultimate goal.

Eric Spomer: Kind of ran out of steam, ran out of money.

Rod Colwell: It’s a sad story.

Charles Marston: And then it fell apart.

Rod Colwell: It all went down the gurgler.

Tracy Sizemore: It was just the nature of people wanting to squeeze too much out of the deal.

Molly Wood: Simbol was a Silicon Valley startup with big dreams of being the first to pull lithium out of Salton Sea brine. 

Remember, this area is rich with geothermal activity and brimming with super-hot salty water that a few companies in this region are already using to create geothermal energy. 

They drill it out of the ground, turn its heat into steam to create power, and Simbol planned to sift through the high amount of minerals and metals in this gnarly, boiling corrosive guck and extract lithium.  

But before Simbol could do any of that, they needed access to the brine.

Simbol didn’t have a geothermal power plant. But remember Eric Spomer and the company we mentioned at the beginning? Energy Source? They were in the process of building just such a power plant. 

So in 2010, Simbol entered into an agreement with Energy Source. Here’s Eric Spomer.   

Eric Spomer: We were approached by the Simbol group, which were some geniuses from Lawrence Livermore Labs and other areas and one business guy.

Molly Wood: The proposal was basically this –

Energy Source would drill the wells, do its thing with the super hot brine, make renewable energy. 

And Simbol would set up shop in the backyard of this new geothermal plant, take samples of the brine and figure out how to pull the lithium out.

Eric and Energy Source were intrigued because they had always hoped to extract minerals from the brine. As a kind of parallel business. Make the whole thing more profitable.

Eric Spomer: You know, way before lithium was hot. It was kind of our fantasy that, you know, you had an integrated system of geothermal power and battery facilities and lithium being produced from our brine.

Molly Wood: So in 2012, Simbol set up in the shadow of Energy Source’s plant, out on the tarmac under a big shade structure, and got to work developing a process – a new technology for extracting minerals. Including: lithium.

There were high hopes, a ribbon cutting, and press conferences.

Ajit Venkatraman, VP Engineering & Operations: We’re here to launch our first commercial plant for Simbol Materials.

Bob Filner, U.S. Congressman: Our whole future in alternative energy… 

Ajit Venkatraman: The electric vehicle revolution.

Bob Filner: Is tied up with the, the production of these kinds of metals.

Ajit Venkatraman: You find lithium and you make the batteries and you basically control the energy that’s gonna be needed for powering the world.

Bob Filner: So this is of national, even international importance. 

Ajit Venkatraman: How exciting is that?

Molly Wood: To be clear, this was never going to be easy.

Alex Grant: I call geothermal brine demon sprite.

Molly Wood: That’s Alex Grant, the industry advisor.

Alex Grant: Geothermal brine projects are not for the faint of heart. You really, really do necessitate deploying, you know, the smartest people in the world on making it happen.

Molly Wood: And these were really smart people, and for a while it was going well. Elon Musk was reportedly interested in buying Simbol for 325 million dollars.

But then it all fell apart – the deal, and maybe the lithium extraction process itself. 

According to local news reports, Simbol’s board wanted upwards of a billion and a half dollars (maybe more). So, way more than Telsa might have been offering.

But the people who were there tell us there was a little more to it than that. Here’s Eric Spomer.

Eric Spomer: There was a key step in the process that, that Simbol was trying not to do because it was expensive. And their demonstration plant, for that reason, never really operated continuously very well.

Molly Wood: That key step, according to Eric and a former Simbol employee, is to pre-treat the brine – clean it up basically – so that other minerals and metals in the brine don’t foul up the works.  Things like manganese and zinc. Another obstacle that Energy Source helped them work out? Dealing with silica. 

Bill Bourcier: Silica gets in the way… you’ve got to get rid of it first.

Molly Wood: Bill Bourcier is a geochemist, one of the geniuses from Lawrence Livermore Labs who helped co-found Simbol and ran research and development in its very early days. He says silica is one of the many minerals found in the Salton Sea brine, and it can really mess up your process. 

Bill Bourcier: It is a very reactive, problematic substance. It’s in all geothermal fluids and it tends to foul in scale and cause problems downstream.

Molly Wood: Simbol was actually originally founded to go after silica, which is used in manufacturing brick and glass, but the company’s investors convinced them to pivot to lithium. Fine, but then the company was trying to skip past the silica to get to the lithium. 

Here’s Bill.

Bill Bourcier: It sort of was, in my opinion, the wrong direction to go for how to solve that problem.

Molly Wood: Bill says Eric Spomer’s company tried to help.

Bill Bourcier: Energy source mostly showed us how to pretreat the fluid to get the silica down, to get the other elements out of the way, to just the Ph to the right below level where nothing would scale out. And that was kind of tried and true technology from the geothermal industry.

But even though the tech never ended up working on a commercial scale, says Eric from Energy Source, Simbol still patented it. 

Eric Spomer: One of their principles was just patented everything you could think of.

Molly Wood: So now, Simbol had patents, but no lithium and no buyer. Tesla walked away from the potential deal and nobody else was on deck. Simbol’s creditors came for their money, but Simbol couldn’t pay. The company was placed under receivership by a judge.

Its assets were sold, including the patents.   

Tesla moved on. 

But the story was just the beginning of a long court battle to come and a patent fight that haunts Lithium Valley to this day.

So let’s try to follow the patents for a bit here. Back in 2015, Simbol is out of money, its assets are in receivership and put up for auction, and a brand new company called Alger Alternative Energy comes in and buys them up for like a million bucks – including the patents. 

Alger’s CEO was a guy named Tracy Sizemore, who had been Vice President of Business Development at Simbol. He’s clearly figuring there’s something here, I’ll scoop this up, start it all up again, right? 

But remember, Simbol had been operating out of a shaded tarmac on Energy Source’s property where Eric Spomer is CEO. And its old stuff was still there: computers, equipment, chemicals, and Energy Source was saying that it had been abandoned, left there for more than 180 days. 

They said, according to the terms of Simbol’s lease, the equipment now belonged to Energy Source.

But Tracy and his new company Alger wanted it. Bad.   

Tracy Sizemore: And you know, when you go through a company where you buy an asset from bankruptcy, you wish it would be easier, but it never is. And, you know, businesses, businesses fight for themselves. And so, you know, that was a challenge. It was difficult and, and painful at times.

Molly Wood: We sifted through hundreds of court documents on this. They are surprisingly pointed.  

Alger claimed Energy Source was “stealing” property and “highly sensitive” trade secrets.

Like data, and patented material that Alger claimed in court filings were quote, “literally worth tens of millions of dollars if not more.”

The filing actually said that Energy Source quote, “surgically selected and stole primarily those assets that contain research and development materials.”

For its part, Energy Source denied stealing anything and asked Alger to retract those allegations.

The fight went on and on. Energy Source’s CEO Eric, was named personally. Tracy Sizemore was banned from the Energy Source property. Tracy doesn’t deny that things got ugly.

Tracy Sizemore: Oh yeah. You know, different people approach it differently. I’m, it’s just, not to quote The Godfather, but it’s just business.

All that business, according to Eric from Energy Source, is what led to him facing these accusations of selling nuclear secrets to Mexico. There’s just a nod to that in the court documents. Alger accuses Eric and Energy Source of selling technology and trade secrets to “entities” “outside the United States”, so we asked Tracy about it.  

Tracy Sizemore: When you get into, when you get into a fight, right? You’re going to fight and the lawsuits you get get challenging. And I think sometimes attorneys push as hard as they can to try to back up to a fallback.

Molly Wood: Is there such a thing as lithium related nuclear secrets?

Tracy Sizemore: That’s a new one to me, I’m trying to understand if that’s possible. So, no.

Molly Wood: The lawsuits ended in a bit of a stalemate. Energy Source won the nastiest one, where 100 million dollars were on the line. The other went to the Court of Appeals. Energy Source kept much of Simbol’s old equipment, Alger kept the patents for a while.

But according to news reports around 2017, Alger and Tracy Sizmore teamed up with Controlled Thermal Resources.

You know, Rod Colwell’s company with the big dreams of popping up a gigantic geothermal plant with a full-on lithium producing machine and maybe a battery building plant and rehabbing the Salton Sea and bringing in the kangaroos? 

That company. Tracy became the Global Director of Battery Materials, but Alger disappeared, and sometime in there that company sold the patents again.

So Rod has Tracy, but not the patents, and that could end up a problem for him down the road.

We’ll get back to the patents a little later. 

But after the break, we’re going back to Eric and Energy Source, because after this big battle finally ended, they’re sitting in the desert with a big new geothermal power plant. They still want to extract lithium, but without Simbol to do it, Eric was going to have to figure out the minefield of the patents and the dang brine itself.  

After Simbol went bust, Eric’s company set out to try to solve some of the tech problems that had plagued it so much. And what they figured out might be a game-changer for extracting lithium from brine all over the world. 

Eric Spomer: We had a rule: thou shalt not invent anything. Because it’s hard to finance things that you invent.

Molly Wood: That was the goal anyway.

But the company soon realized that even aside from the tech that Simbol had patented, this pre-treatment part of the process, Energy Source still needed a whole other piece of the puzzle.  

Eric Spomer: The key piece of technology that we found didn’t really exist was that, the middle step where you take lithium, or really a chloride rich stream of fluid with lots, with tons of salt and tons of calcium and tons of potassium in it and extract just the lithium and reject all that other stuff and do it efficiently. And there are technologies out there that do all that, but none of them worked economically for us.

Molly Wood: So you did invent something is what you’re saying.

Eric Spomer: We ended up inventing something.

Molly Wood: You broke your rule.

Molly Wood: That thing they invented to take the lithium – and just the lithium – out of the brine is called the ILiAD, which stands for Integrated Lithium Adsorption Desorption.

Yeah, no, it really stands for that. But it ended up being a great name if you love metaphors, which I do. 

The other Iliad, that epic poem by Homer, is all about the final year of the Trojan War.

And not to draw too strong a parallel, but Energy Source’s ILiAD is kinda in the home stretch of its own war. 

The war to tame the gnarly brine. 

Listen, I wanna pause and highlight something here .

To successfully invent something that can take lithium out of the Salton Sea’s geothermal brine is a very big deal.

That’s because the brine is really hard to work with. It’s 600 degrees. Full of dissolved solids and highly corrosive. People respect the brine. 

Molly Wood: I love how the brine is like its own kind of magical character. It’s like the Merlin,  like.

Eric Spomer: Well, it is. It is. It’s in charge. I mean, it is dictating how this goes. People are attracted and have been for generations to the Salton Sea because it is the largest hydrothermal resource proven in the world. And it’s hot and there’s lots of it. It seems never to deplete and it’s attractive for that reason. And then they come down here and find out that it’s very, very hard. It eats metal.

Molly Wood: Yeah, it feels like it feels like a metaphor, though. It also eats people like everyone, you know, and eats dreams. 

Eric Spomer: Well, I will tell you, I told our attorney we were pursuing this thing in the Salton Sea and he said, don’t please. You guys have an amazing business. You’re doing all these cool things. Don’t go to the Salton Sea. Why? He said because it’ll, it’ll destroy you. It’ll break your heart. It, it does it to everybody.

Molly Wood: Out on the tarmac, under a canopy – the same place, actually, where Simbol set up all those years ago – Eric and COO Derek Benson take me to see the ILiAD. 

Molly Wood: Is ILiAD the hardware? I mean, I assume it’s also the process.

Derek Benson: It’s a combination of the hardware and the absorbant.

Molly Wood: So this is Greek odyssey right here.

I had to promise Eric and Derek that I wouldn’t take photographs or describe the ILiAD in too much detail.

But in broad terms, it looks like a lucite box that’s maybe about seven feet tall, with a bunch of tubes in it, with various hoses going in and out of it. 

We’re out in an open-air tarmac where all that old Simbol equipment got fought over, standing in front of a gigantic fan trying to stay a little bit cool in the hundred and ten degree heat, admiring the magic box. 

It’s in the pilot phase, but it works. It shakes lithium out of the gnarly Salton Sea brine.

And its inventors are confident it’ll scale up. This machine is one reason Energy Source is considered the quiet front-runner in the race to conquer the brine – or demon Sprite, if you will. 

Plus, ILIAD is a brand new revenue source.

The company has already licensed ILIAD to other companies that want to extract lithium from brine in South America.

So it’s all super cool and exciting although I’ll admit that right now, the operation looks a little Home Depot. 

Molly Wood: Is there – this may be a dumb question and I’m OK with that – is there a product that we can see, like are you extracting lithium and putting it in a bucket and we can look in that bucket? 

Derek Benson: Literally we are extracting lithium and putting it in a bucket. 

Molly Wood: Ha! It was not a dumb question. There’s a bucket. Always ask. Oh, my God, there’s an actual bucket.

Molly Wood: And the lithium chloride is a liquid? Looks like it. A little Windex-y looking.

Derek Benson: It looks like water. So to, to you and me, it would look like water. It’s, it’s, it’s largely a water with lithium chloride and a little bit of calcium in our case with this particular brine. 

Molly Wood: That’s it. That’s the white gold. You’ve got a pile of it right there.

Molly Wood: As we’re admiring the invention, sweating in the heat, surrounded by the surreal Salton Sea playa, a man rides by on a three-wheel trike with a big bag of trash. 

He’s wearing overall jeans. He looks like he’s in his 60s. Has a full white beard that reminds one a little of Santa Claus. I briefly considered the possibility that he might be a heat-induced hallucination. 

He flashes our group a big smile, waves, drops the bag in the dumpster and rides off.

Eric Spomer: The visual I really want you to leave with that visual that one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet just rode by you.

Molly Wood: The guy! The ILiAD inventor. Oh, my God, he’s just riding by on his bicycle. I love today.

Derek Benson: He was taking the trash out.

Molly Wood: He was taking the trash out. Of course he was. Why wouldn’t he be?

Molly Wood: That man is Dr. Charles Marston. Inventor of the ILiAD.

We finally landed an indoor interview with him a few weeks later. 

Molly Wood: I feel like, I think last time we saw you here, you were riding by us on a tricycle. Is that just a normal? 

Charles Marston: Yeah, well, it’s, you know, it’s not a tricycle, you know, it’s an industrial three wheeled bicycle.

Molly Wood: My mistake. Absolutely.

Molly Wood: Dr. Charles Marston, or Chuck, built the ILiAD based on technology developed years ago by Dow Chemical.

Chuck actually worked at Dow Chemical back then. 

He’s an expert in “minerals recovery”,  specifically from “solutions” like hot salty water. 

Molly Wood: What have you worked on – when you say mining, was it gold extraction or silver or all of that?

Charles Marston: Yes. Yes. Yes. You know, gold, silver, zinc, nickel, cobalt, um, uranium, uh, wow. All that. Plutonium. 

Molly Wood: Really? Where was that? Tell me everything. I know we’re here to talk about this other thing, but. 

Molly Wood: OK, focus up Molly, don’t get distracted by nuclear sounding stuff.

Now, Chuck is re-tooling the technology so it’ll work on the Salton Sea’s super hot, corrosive brine.

Chuck Marston: It’s a compact elegant package of engineering and chemistry And so um that’s how it all comes together.

Molly Wood: So it is a magic box…

Chuck Marston: It is a magic box.

Chuck Marston: I’ve done a lot of things in my career and I think this is, um my Opus Magnum you know what I mean. The, the greatest work.

Molly Wood: Chuck says the magic box is a total game changer.

Chuck Marston: 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.

Molly Wood: The best part is, this process is sustainable. It doesn’t poison the environment. There’s minimal impact on local communities. And it’s not just Chuck who says so. 

Alex Grant: I’ve kind of felt like, almost like an industry shill. 

Molly Wood: This is Alex Grant again. In his role as an industry advisor, he also studies the true carbon cost of lithium ion batteries.

This is by far the most desirable way to make lithium chemicals that anyone has ever imagined on planet Earth.

It’s expensive and it’s clearly complicated.

But Chuck believes that the ILIAD and the market for lithium that’s pushing everyone to innovate faster, will make the tech widespread quickly, bring the price down and let brine extraction really become viable all over the world – like South America and anywhere else it’s found. 

Back in the boardroom with Eric Spomer,

Molly Wood: I mean, this sounds, I know nothing is all good. This sounds all good. Like it sounds like you’re incentivizing more geothermal energy development and then you will get this resource out of it that will help everybody electrify. Is there, is there a not good?

Eric Spomer: No.

Molly Wood: Well, not quite. 

It does take some water to make geothermal energy and extract lithium water that comes from the very stressed Colorado River, which has demands on it ranging from agriculture to utility companies and is being impacted by California’s ongoing megadrought. 

There’s still the part where even when the lithium comes out it has to get shipped halfway across the world to be turned into a battery using what’s most likely coal-powered energy and then get shipped all the way back.

And then there’s this matter of a road block that’s potentially as big a deal as the moving geyser from the last episode: those patents. Enter Terralithium. 

Terralithium is the company that now owns Simbol’s old patents. Quick reminder – the patents cover processes that are different from the ILiAD technology. They cover steps before the brine gets to the ILiAD.

So here’s the deal with these folks. Terralithium is substantially owned by a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. Yes. Petroleum. 

They hired the old chief technology officer from Simbol. One of Terralithium’s three board members is a guy named Clay Walker.

A country music singer, because why not. 

And the chairman of Terralithium is Marvin Odum, a former Shell Oil Executive.

Marvin Odum: It was the first and only interview I had out of college. And so then, you know, a full career later retired as the president of Shell Oil Company.

Molly Wood: Odum says, yep. They’ve got the patents.

Marvin Odum: We own all of the Simbol patents.

Molly Wood: And the patents are real valuable.  

Marvin Odum: An important but short story there is that’s a, that’s a very advantageous place to be.

Molly Wood: It’s advantageous if you want to be in the lithium extraction game in the Salton Sea, which Marvin says is the plan for Terralithium. 

And also, because according to him everyone needs to do the stuff the patents cover. Remember that pre-treatment step where you have to remove impurities like silica from the brine before you can start taking out the minerals and the metals. Otherwise the demon Sprite, the brine, will just eat through equipment and foil every attempt to extract lithium efficiently – and without a huge amount of expense. 

Last year, Energy Source challenged several of Terralithium’s patents, trying to get them “invalidated”.

Energy Source argues the processes Simbol patented have been around for decades and are widely used.

Nevertheless, earlier this spring, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board ruled against Energy Source.

So the patents stand and Marvin is saying, look, the patents are the foundation of extracting lithium from the Salton Sea. And any company that wants to do that is going to have to license this technology, at whatever price Terralithium thinks is appropriate. 

Marvin Odum: Without getting into too much detail. You know, all competitors out there will have to deal with these patents and have respect for them and address them if they haven’t already in terms of how they move forward.

Molly Wood: Now, Energy Source and Eric have been trying to come to a deal with Terralithium since they lost their patent lawsuit.

But we asked all the players in Lithium Valley about the patents, and at least on the surface everyone else is kind of saying they aren’t a problem. 

Here’s Rod Colwell, from Controlled Thermal Resources.

Rod Colwell: Very aware of the patents, but we don’t see any issues with it.

Here’s Jonathan Weisgall, the VP of government relations at Berkshire Hathaway Energy.  

Jonathan Weisgall: We are comfortable that we are not going to be infringing any existing patents because we’re not using the technology that is the subject of that litigation that you’re talking about.

So I took all that back to Marvin Odum, the CEO of Terralithium and owner of the patents. 

Molly Wood: You mentioned all competitors. We’ve certainly talked to people who say, Oh, the patents are not a not a thing for us, right? But it sounds like you’re saying, Oh, they will be.

Marvin Odum: Well, I think everybody, yes, I think everybody is going to have to address this in a more explicit way. 

Molly Wood: So if we talk to somebody who is saying, oh no, this is not a problem, it’s not that they don’t know any better, they’re just sort of hoping for the best.

Marvin Odum: That would be my assessment. And I am not going to put myself in a position of speaking for anybody else. But this is, this is not a secret, of course, that these exist and, and I know anybody working out in that area is very aware of it.

Molly Wood: Interesting. 

Molly Wood: Meanwhile, Marvin Odum told me Terralithium isn’t only a patent company. He says the company fully intends to start building its own lithium brine extraction facilities – a demonstration plant at first, he says, although he won’t say when.

And when I asked if Terralithium plans to build a geothermal power plant, he only said that those are really important. 

So for the moment, at least, it seems the patents are the business.  

Alex Grant: I think it’s really sad that these grown men type people aren’t able to get around a table and figure this out. Instead, it’s just like, filing litigation against each other and publishing passive aggressive announcements to the market. I find that sad.

Molly Wood: There’s our industry advisor Alex Grant, who says no matter what the companies are saying publicly, this patent fight could seriously slow down lithium from brine extraction in the Salton Sea. 

Alex Grant: I really hope that, that it will get figured out whether that’s the patent being invalidated or, or some kind of royalty scheme that’s reasonable being agreed to. I really sincerely hope it does get figured out because we need those lithium chemicals. There’s a ton of lithium in the Salton Sea and a patent dispute is, is the silliest reason I can think of for, for the Salton Sea geothermal resource not being developed.

Molly Wood: So are the patents a dealbreaker, and is the whole idea of a super sustainable miracle in the desert – renewable energy pumping out tons of lithium every year – actually a desert mirage? 

This battle is still being fought. 

But let’s not let the perfect or the patents be the enemy of trying everything, right? 

Because right now we keep on burning fossil fuels and the earth keeps getting hotter.

And the whole transition to electric cars and a power grid based on batteries, could be stopped dead in its tracks by a massive shortage of lithium while everyone is arguing. 

Shades of Seveneves and bleak sci-fi, right? 

But on that note, in our next episode we’re going to imagine what it looks like to get from here to there. From the fighting to the fixing… 

In the form of more hopeful science fiction. 

Kim Stanley Robinson: I am pretty surprised, even maybe stunned at how much faster things are happening than I ever wrote in my books.

Molly Wood: Next week, one of my all-time favorite sci-fi authors on imagining solutions, dispensing with false prophets and doing the boring hard work of making real change.  

That’s next time on How We Survive. 

And if you have questions about any of this: the gnarly brine, the magic box, the lithium related nuclear secrets, the country music, send it all our way: survive@marketplace.org.

How We Survive was created and hosted by me, Molly Wood

Caitlin Esch produced this episode. 

With help from Grace Rubin and Marque Greene.

Caitlin and I wrote it.

Editing by Hayley Hershman. 

With help from Catherine Winter and Peter Thomson  

Scoring and sound design by Chris Julin 

Mixing by Brian Alison

Sitara Nieves is our Executive Producer 

Donna Tam is our interim executive director of on-demand

Our theme music is by Wonderly

Thank you for listening! Please subscribe if you haven’t and tell a friend. 


The team

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