Until another element is preferred or discovered, lithium will be the foundation for electric and hybrid vehicle batteries for the foreseeable future. It is an expensive part of the battery packs being installed and is keeping sticker prices fairly high. The price of lithium, the lightest metal, has jumped 35 percent in the past 18 months, according to Jonathan Lee, an analyst at Byron Capital Markets in Toronto.

Making lithium-ion batteries less expensive is driving a lot of battery technology companies to look for alternatives, and forecasts that say lithium demand will be doubling in the next eight years based on sales of batteries in electric vehicles, make it more feasible. Simbol Materials, based in Pleasanton, CA, thinks brine offers a solution. The company's proposed Imperial Valley plant near the Mexican border would slash the time and cost needed to extract lithium from salty water, according to CEO Luka Erceg.

Simbol may boost output from an initial 8,000 tons a year to as much as 64,000 tons by the end of the decade, Erceg said, equal to 21 percent of projected global demand. The company is convinced demand will be there. By 2020 there could be annual sales of 3.9 million hybrids, 1.4 million plug-in hybrids and 2.8 million full electric plug-in vehicles, Erceg said.

Simbol is competing for business in a market dominated by four lithium producers, including Princeton, NJ-based Rockwood Holdings. Lithium is usually mined from ore, but brine evaporation could become its lowest-cost source. Simbol takes brine from geothermal power plants and extracts minerals via a reverse osmosis filtration system in a process that takes 90 minutes to 2 hours. Conventional methods using evaporation can take 18 months, Erceg says. If it all pans out, salt water could become the best source for lithium extraction. The supply is abundant and increasing – and no single company or country dominates the oceans.

*UPDATE: There was an error in this post. We got the following from Simbol PR: "While the geothermal brine located underground in California's Imperial Valley is in some ways a salty water, it is quite different from salt water found in the ocean. Extracting lithium from ocean salt water is hypothetically possible, but is an entirely different technology than what Simbol does and people could easily confuse the two."