Utah’s Great Salt Lake is leaving behind a toxic bowl of dust as it disappears — but hope for a greener future may also lay in the salty water.
The Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the Western hemisphere, is laced with lithium, a mineral used to make rechargeable batteries in electric vehicles. As competition to mine lithium amid the energy transition heats up, companies are seeking new ways to extract it that cause less environmental damage.
A California-based startup called Lilac Solutions wants to remove billions of gallons of water from the Great Salt Lake, extract the lithium, and then return the water.
The plan involves siphoning thousands of gallons of water out of the lake per minute and eventually producing 20,000 tons of lithium annually, The Wall Street Journal reported. The method also does not use evaporation ponds, which are typically used to concentrate lithium that’s present in briny water.
The Great Salt Lake has faced record-low water levels in recent years that scientists blame on excessive water use. As the lake dries up, it exposes sediments and pollutants that have built up in the lake that, once exposed to wind, create dust pollution that can cause respiratory problems, cancer, and other health issues.
But Lilac says its method of harvesting lithium from the lake would avoid environmental damage and not cause any water loss.
“We think we can do this without evaporating anything,” Raef Sully, COO of Lilac Solutions, told The Salt Lake Tribune in September, “and putting the same volume back that we take out.”
Lilac announced this week it raised $145 million from investors as it builds “the foundation of a US lithium supply chain.” Among the company’s investors are Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Mitsubishi, and The Nature Conservancy.
“If the US wants a meaningful domestic supply chain for lithium, we need extraction technology that can scale without wrecking iconic American landscapes or draining water resources,” the announcement said, adding, “If we don’t unlock lithium supplies that are affordable, scalable, and secure, all the EV targets announced by automakers are dead-on-arrival.”