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In the race to save the planet and wean ourselves off fossils fuels, Lithium has become the go-to power source for emerging technologies. If it uses a battery, chances are it’s a Lithium Ion battery, offering longer life cycles, longer yield and simply put, more juice for your buck. Ask Tesla, who’ve invested heavily into the technology to power their vehicles and who are now seen as leaders in the industry in terms of innovation.
There is however a darker side to this new fossil-free from of alternative energy and it relates to both the environment and to the methods used to extract lithium.
To many, Lithium represents a means to sever our reliance on fossil fuel production and consider it as crucial in the transition to renewables. Lithium is the lightest known metal on the planet, it is widely used in electric devices from mobile phones and laptops, to cars and aircraft. Lithium powered electric vehicles are set to account for up to 60% of new car sales by 2030. Tesla’s Model S uses around 12 kg of lithium in each vehicle manufactured.
Last year alone Tesla sold 176,372 Model S electric vehicles. How much Lithium as used in the production of these cars. In excess of 2,100 tons, or 2,116,464 kg’s and this represents only one model from one car manufacturer. More importantly, to extract this much Lithium, the industry contaminated a staggering 4,656,220,800 (4.6 billion) liters of water. That’s the equivalent of around 2000 Olympic sized swimming pools of water.
The real cost of Lithium is not financial, it is environmental
The Salar de Atacama salt flats in northern Chile offer one of the most lucrative Lithium deposits on the planet. Located in the so called “Lithium Triangle”, an expanse of land at the juncture of the Chilean, Argentinian and Bolivian borders in South America, it is home to the largest expanse of lithium evaporation sites on the planet.
While these fields may appear as stunning and surreal landscapes, they are for all intent and purpose, open cast mines, extracting a non-renewable resource from the earth. An extraction process that comes at a price.
Any type of resource extraction is harmful to our planet. Removing these raw materials can result in soil degradation, water shortages, biodiversity loss, damage to ecosystem functions, ground destabilization, increased salinity of rivers, contaminated soil and toxic waste. When we think of extraction, we think of fossil fuels like coal and gas, but lithium also falls in the same category, despite the green washing it receives.
It is the extraction process for Lithium that is at the root of the environmental issues it faces. The production of lithium through the evaporation ponds pictured above requires a lot of water – around 21 million liters per day. Approximately 2.2 million liters of water is needed to produce one ton of lithium.
In arid dry areas where Lithium is usually found, water, or the lack thereof, can prove challenging, especially in the volumes required to make these ponds viable, with an average site consuming around 21 million liters a day. This water intensive contaminating process channels away water from local communities in arid areas particularly prone to drought and lack of potable water.
According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), as of 2019 there were around 80 million tons of identified reserves globally. After South America’s “Lithium Triangle” the next biggest lithium-producing country is the United States, followed closely by Australia and China. In 2019, lithium exports from Australia are reported to have totaled almost 1.6 billion dollars (US$). Zimbabwe, Brazil and Portugal, the only European nation to find Lithium, have much smaller reserves.
Find more statistics at Statista
Portugal is an interesting exception to the Lithium craze for mining the new “white gold”. It’s citizens have blocked every effort by mining consortiums to exploit the Portuguese reserves, despite assurance by these companies that the mining posed no environmental risks.
A report published in 2021 by the nonprofit BePe (Bienaventuradors de Pobres) identifies water as a primary concern for lithium mining operations. It claims that not enough research has been done on the potential contamination of water and that;
activity must be stopped until studies are available to reliably determine the magnitude of the damage.”Bienaventuradors de Pobres
Lithium comes home to roost
The US currently boasts only one operational lithium mine but that is about to change, with multiple new projects in development across the country. In October of 2022, the Biden administration awarded $3 billion in grants to build and expand domestic manufacturing of batteries for electric vehicles in 12 states.
These grants will essentially lead to a new blight appearing on the American landscape, place more pressure on scare water resources and contribute to skyrocketing levels of domestic pollution. All in the name of environmentalism.
To achieve its goal of climate neutrality by mid-century, the EU will require 18 times more lithium than it currently uses by 2030 and almost 60 times more by 2050. Globally, demand for lithium in 2020 sat at around 317,517 metric tons with industry expecting this figure to increase six fold by 2030. Lithium demand on a global basis is growing at about 20 per cent per year.
US developers are looking at several possible new sites for the extraction of Lithium.
A site identified in the Thacker Pass in northern Nevada would be operated by by Lithium Americas. You can read more on this project here. By the second phase of the project they project a yearly yield of 80 000 tons. Remember it requires 2.2 million liters of water to extract 1 ton.
According to their website;
Thacker Pass received a Record of Decision in January 2021 from the US Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and has all permits required to commence construction.
Thacker Pass is situated at the southern end of the McDermitt Caldera, approximately 100 km northwest of Winnemucca, in Humboldt County, northern Nevada.
The Thacker Pass operation will include a co-located sulfuric acid plant that will convert molten sulfur into sulfuric acid. This process produces steam, which we will use to generate carbon-free power for the processing facilities.
An Australian-based Lithium mining outfit called Ioneer also wants to build a large lithium mine in Nevada. The company’s 100%-owned Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project in Nevada, US, is expected to produce some 20,000 tons of lithium per year according to the company.
Their water footprint will, according to the company, be minimal in comparison to tradition lithium mining technology. In their own words;
Project design implements best-in-class water utilization while recycling the majority of water usage. Expected to use 30x less water per tonne than existing U.S. production. Additionally, the project will not have any evaporation ponds or tailings dam.IONEER
Supporters of Lithium are quick to point out that around 95% of the Lithium used in a battery can be recovered and is the equivalent grade of the freshly mined product. While this may be true in theory, in practice only 5% of Lithium batteries in use in the US are currently recycled and it is purely because of cost.
Billions of dead lithium-ion batteries, including many from electric vehicles, are accumulating globally in land fills because there is currently no cost-effective process to revive them. A startup from Princeton thinks it may have come up with a method to address this.
Princeton NuEnergy uses a process developed by researchers who combined expertise from diverse fields to solve a longstanding problem: how to turn spent cathode materials, or the expensive part of a lithium-ion battery, which contain elements such as cobalt, nickel, manganese, and Lithium, into pristine new cathodes.
Using low-temperature plasma, an ionized gas that is extremely reactive, the Princeton NuEnergy team cleans up the cathode material without destroying it. Their method involves mechanically separating the cathode and anode materials and running the cathode powder through a plasma reactor to remove contamination produced from using the batteries.
In case you think this is all overkill just to reclaim a small quantity of Lithium, here is how this mountain of used batteries will increase if not addressed. Electric vehicle batteries have a lifetime of five to 10 years, and there are about 3,000 battery cells per vehicle, depending on the model.
Analysis from IHC Markit estimates there are currently around 10 billion or about 465,000 tons of used electric vehicle batteries in need of processing today and expects that number to grow to 29 billion by 2025.
Lithium’s nasty bedfellows
There is another issue faced by proponents of lithium-ion based power to replace oil. The process to build a functional battery requires the presence of certain other key ingredients, among them cobalt, nickel and manganese. Of all these elements, cobalt has, without a doubt achieved the most notoriety when it comes to mining the elements.
Much of the world’s cobalt, a key ingredient in the battery cathodes, is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where mining frequently involves child labor in illicit mining operations. Based on operational mines and projected demand, forecasters predict that supply won’t be able to keep up with demand by 2030, or even as early as 2025.
A single lithium-ion EV battery pack contains more than 30 pounds (14 kg) of cobalt, and larger vehicles, like electric buses and shipping trucks, can use much more. This make any viable recycling method well worth the effort to reclaim what is in effect a very limited and rapidly dwindling resource for the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries.
Nickel (Ni) is becoming a toxic pollutant (heavy metal pollution) in agricultural environments, due to its diverse uses from a range of common household items to industrial applications. The mining process also suffers from the same issues that plague Lithium, namely air pollution, water contamination and the destruction of habitats.
Manganese (Mn) is mined in open mines. Chronic manganese exposure is a health hazard associated with the mining and processing of Mn ores. Children living in an area with increased environmental exposure to Mn often display symptoms of chronic toxicity that are different from adults who experience occupational exposure to manganese.
What are the alternatives?
It’s all good and well highlighting the issues surround Lithium, but the real question we should be focused on is “do we have an alternative”? The answer would seem to be, yes. Three alternatives are suggested by an article in IMeche.
Sodium-ion batteries are an emerging technology with promising cost, safety, sustainability and performance advantages over commercialised lithium-ion batteries. Key advantages include the use of widely available and inexpensive raw materials and a rapidly scaleable technology based around existing lithium-ion production methods. These properties make sodium-ion batteries especially important in meeting global demand for carbon-neutral energy-storage solutions.
The development of solid-state batteries that can be manufactured at a large scale is one of the most important challenges in the industry today. The ambition is to develop solid-state batteries, suitable for use in electric vehicles, which substantially surpass the performance, safety and processing limitations of lithium-ion batteries. In contrast to research into lithium-ion batteries, which will provide incremental gains in performance towards theoretical limits, research into solid-state batteries is long term and high risk but also has the potential to bring high rewards.
Lithium-sulphur technology has the potential to offer cheaper, lighter batteries that also offer safety advantages. After initially finding use in niche markets such as satellites, drones and military vehicles, the technology has the potential to transform aviation in the long term. Electric aircraft offering short-range flights or vertical take-off and landing (including personalized aviation and flying taxis in cities) are distinct possibilities by 2050.
It would seem the time is upon us to explore these technologies with vigor, as our continued pursuit of fossil fuels (Lithium included) can only end in further environmental destruction. Destruction that directly impacts public health and our delicate eco-systems.