GM just cut a big deal to tackle EV's dirty secret

GM plans to use US-sourced lithium in its next-generation batteries for electric vehicles, tapping a new – and potentially less environmentally damaging – supply for the essential but controversial metal. Lithium batteries are a key part of EV expansion, both for GM and indeed all automakers looking to electrification, but the rare metal has some significant drawbacks along with it.

For a start, most lithium is currently mined outside of the US, leaving American automakers dependent on foreign supplies. Current lithium extraction processes, meanwhile, are incredibly resource-intensive, particularly when it comes to water. Some estimates peg that at 500,000 gallons per metric ton of lithium produced.

Today, General Motors announced it has inked a deal with Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR), a provider of US-sourced, low-cost lithium. The strategic investment and commercial collaboration will see GM move to the front of the line when it comes to the lithium supply, particularly from CTR's Hell's Kitchen Lithium and Power development in the Salton Sea Geothermal Field, located in Imperial, California.

There, CTR plans to operate a so-called closed-loop, direct extraction process. That takes lithium from geothermal brine, which has a smaller physical footprint than traditional open-pit mines. It also avoids evaporation ponds, and can be powered by renewable energy sources. Importantly, carbon dioxide emissions are significantly lower for the method, too.

"CTR's closed-loop, direct lithium extraction process utilizes renewable power and steam – significantly reducing the time to produce battery-grade lithium products and eliminating the need for overseas processing," the company said today. "CTR's operations will have a minimal physical footprint and a near-zero carbon footprint. The brine, after lithium extraction, is returned to the geothermal reservoir deep within the earth."

CTR expects the first stage of the Hell's Kitchen project to begin producing lithium in 2024. GM will have first rights on that yield, in addition to an option for a further, multi-year relationship as it tries to secure a longterm lithium supply. In total, the automaker says, "a significant amount of GM's future battery-grade lithium hydroxide and carbonate" could come from that facility.

It'll be instrumental as GM ramps up electric vehicle plans across its various brands. While currently the bulk of its electrified cars and trucks are hybrids, with the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Bolt EUV the all-electric outliers in the US, General Motors has considerable ambitions for expansion with its Ultium platform. That will see new battery chemistry and an all-new architecture used for EVs across its nameplates.

Initially that'll include the GMC Hummer EV and the Cadillac Lyriq, but Chevrolet is planning an all-electric Silverado pickup truck too. Ultium will also underpin GM's expansion beyond its own brands, with the platform set to form the basis of new Honda and Acura SUVs. The 2024 Honda Prologue will be the first of those, followed by an Acura version also developed atop GM technology.