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Valley high school grad innovates lithium extraction device, presents patent to Salton Sea Authority

He is just about a month out of high school, but Palm Desert teenager Clay Jones has already developed an innovation that could help create clean energy from the Salton Sea.

Working out of his parents’ garage, the recent Palm Desert High School graduate has created a lithium extraction device inspired by the lithium potential in the Salton Sea.

"I’m really proud of what I’ve built and nobody really understands it which is kind of the best part," Jones said.

He says the device uses photons to energize orbiting electrons, making it easier for certain materials to attract lithium-ion from the waters. 

"It was a long process but it definitely has paid off," Jones said.

Jones was part of a group of high school students who kayaked across the Salton Sea in 2020 to raise awareness of the looming environmental concerns.

While paddling, the young scientist considered using "photons to energize orbiting electrons, making lithium absorbing materials more attractive to lithium ions suspended in the Sea."

The Salton Sea

That trip led to the development of the innovation. On Friday, Jones demonstrated his device to Congressman Raul Ruiz and representatives from the Salton Sea Authority.

"He’s always been bright and a delight to work with and it’s just a testament to stem it’s a testament to his family and parents into his high school," Ruiz said.

News Channel 3 and anchor Angela Chen have been covering the issues surrounding the Salton Sea for years, including the environmental and health aspects of the looming ecological disaster as well as the potential for harvesting "white gold," or lithium. See our special section, The Salton Sea Project, here.

In Depth Coverage: Troubled Waters: The ‘White Gold Rush’ at the Salton Sea is slow going but holds major lithium pay dirt

Plans to tax lithium being developed

Wednesday night, California lawmakers approved the $3.8 billion state budget plan. Part of the budget includes a new tax on lithium being developed at the Salton Sea.

Lithium developer Controlled Thermal Resources said the tax is too high and will instead push people to buy lithium from China.

"CTR is confident that an independent study of the lithium market and tax mechanisms will make it abundantly clear to Governor Newsom that this additional tax, as it currently stands, will severely impact the development of ‘Lithium Valley’. ... Supporting a tax that ensures lithium imports from China are less expensive for auto manufacturers ... will devastate this promising Californian industry before it has begun."

- Statement from CTR

Local Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia's office who helped push the budget through supports the tax framework though saying:

"We needed to make certain that as this Lithium Valley industry emerges, our economically depressed and environmentally underserved community does not get left behind – this legislation accomplishes that. Years of discussion and input gathering with industry, the County of Imperial, residents, and other stakeholders led to the development of this tax framework." 

Assemblymember Garcia

Related coverage: Leaders urge public participation in Salton Sea lithium extraction planning

Resident input wanted

In April of this year, News Channel 3 reporter Jake Ingrassia reported that local leaders and energy representatives are calling on the public to take part in planning surrounding lithium extraction at the Salton Sea.

The message came after a multi-day summit at UCR Palm Desert, where more than 200 people met to discuss issues facing the Salton Sea, which could soon become the largest source of lithium in the world.

Officials say before tapping into the mine of so-called "white gold," local residents should have a say.

Find In-Depth Coverage of The Salton Sea Project here:

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KESQ News Team

Angela Chen

Angela comes to the Coachella Valley as KESQ’s morning anchor after teaching graduate school classes at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication. Learn more about Angela here.


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