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California Wants Its Imperial Valley to Be ‘Lithium Valley’

The region’s Salton Sea contains a massive trove of the metal needed for electric-car batteries.

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California’s Salton Sea area might yield 600,000 tons of lithium a year.

California’s Salton Sea area might yield 600,000 tons of lithium a year.

Photographer: Debbie Bentley

Dust storms laced with toxins sweep across California’s Imperial County, where mud volcanoes spit and hiss near the shores of the slowly shrinking lake known as the Salton Sea. The county is one of California’s poorest, most of its jobs tied to a thin strip of irrigated land surrounded by desert. San Diego and the Golden State’s prosperous coast lie only 100 miles away across a jumble of mountains, but it might as well be another world.

Yet this overlooked moonscape may hold the key to America’s clean-car future. Hot brine trapped beneath the desert floor contains potentially one of the world’s biggest deposits of lithium. Demand for the metal is soaring as automakers worldwide shift to electric cars powered by lithium-ion batteries. Most of that lithium now comes from Australia, China, and South America. The U.S. badly wants its own supply.