One of Eastern Kern County's leading industries has received a big boost with news the area's largest mining company has discovered lithium — an integral building block of electric cars — in the local waste piles it has generated over the past 90 years.
Rio Tinto, which already employs several hundred people mining for borates in the town of Boron, said it has launched a project to test its capacity for extracting lithium carbonate from its "tailings," which is the waste left behind by the mining process.
If the $10 million project proves successful, the company said it may invest $50 million expanding the operation so it can become the largest domestic supplier of lithium to the growing U.S. electric vehicle market.
Local observers lauded the development as a potential boon to Eastern Kern's economy.
"This is promising news about one way we can diversify our regional economy," said Mark Evans, a Cal State Bakersfield professor emeritus of economics.
County Supervisor Zack Scrivner, whose District 2 encompasses Boron, said the initial project could make Rio Tinto "more viable, and also bolster our renewable energy sector."
Lithium is a relatively rare element that is produced in only small quantities in the United States. China is believed to be the world's largest producer of lithium, making U.S. production of lithium a strategic priority for the Trump administration.
Richard Cohen, managing director of borates and lithium at London- and Melbourne-based Rio Tinto, said the discovery of lithium in mining tailings could extend the life of the mine in Boron, which has been estimated as being on track to shut down in 40 years.
Cohen said some employees are being retrained to work on the lithium operation and that some new workers have been hired to support the project as well. He declined to say just how many jobs the operation will support, adding that the company expects to work with local engineers and contracting firms on the project.
"This is not really about large-scale employment at the moment," Cohen said.
Borates, used in a wide variety of products from fertilizer to medicine, have been produced in eastern Kern for more than 100 years. The mine in Boron has run for about 90 years.
Rio Tinto said it was originally looking for gold in its tailings when it discovered lithium. It said the challenge now is to extract and chemically refine the lithium economically in large quantities.
The bake-and-leach refining system now under development is expected to produce enough lithium for 30 Tesla Model S batteries per year, Rio Tinto said. The company said it would hope to put out 5,000 times that much if it proceeds to build the larger plant, which also would be located in Boron.
Bill Deaver, a longtime community activist in eastern Kern, called the discovery and processing of lithium in Boron "a really big deal." He said the news was announced to local stakeholders several months ago.
"I think it's a really great thing not only for eastern Kern and Mojave and Boron but for the whole country and the world," he said.
Evans offered estimates for how big a benefit the lithium project could provide locally. He said existing economic models for employment in Kern suggest every $1 million in sales outside the region generally produce about four direct and indirect jobs in the county.
Additionally, he said, every lithium processing job in the county generates one indirect job in Kern.
No less consequential, he said, could be lithium mining's significance to Sacramento as state leaders look to wind down Kern's oil industry. He said the county is leading the state in renewable energy production, which officials clamping down on oil should take into account.
"This is another important way — in addition to wind and solar — that Kern County will be helping the state and nation transition to lower carbon emissions," Evans said by email.