There are many columns of inches given to the environmental benefits of electric vehicles, such as reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. But there is a salty little secret that is often overshadowed by those who enjoy a lyrical attitude towards electric cars – the environmental impact of lithium produced for the production of batteries for electric cars.
So I decided to dive deep into what it is, where it comes from, how it is extracted, its impact on the environment and what we can do to make it more environmentally friendly.
And don’t worry – you don’t need a degree in geology.
What is lithium?
Lithium is a naturally occurring substance found in ionic minerals such as petalite, lepidolite and spodumene. These minerals are found mainly in two places: rock formations or underground brine reservoirs.
What is lithium used for?
Lithium is best known as an ingredient in rechargeable batteries. These include those that power medical devices, cell phones, computers, power tools, and more. It is also found in hybrid and all-electric cars, buses, ferries, drones and sometimes aircraft batteries.
According to IHS Markit, in 2000, about 9% of the lithium produced was used for batteries. By 2020, this share has grown to 66% and is projected to reach over 90% by 2030.
For some context, a fully electric vehicle (such as the Tesla Model S) contains approximately 63 kg of lithium.
Where does lithium come from?
According to According to the US Geological Survey, Australia has the largest lithium production, with most coming from hard rock ores is located in Greenbushes projects. This is the largest single lithium reserve in the world.
Then there is what is known as the “Lithium Triangle of South America” - composed of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.
The region contains more lithium than Australia, but produces less. It takes advantage of the geological conditions that create lithium-rich salt pans. One of the main sources of production is in the Salar de Atacama (Chile), submerged in the Atacama Desert (the driest in the world). Another is the Salar del Hombre Muerto in Argentina.
Third on the list is China, with most of the country’s lithium coming from the Chang Tang plain in western Tibet. However, China is lagging behind as the nation imports a lot of lithium from Australia.
How is it extracted?
There are two main ways, depending on where the source of lithium is.
Extraction on rocks:
In the extraction of rocks, the hard rock is pierced and exploded, then crushed. Lithium is then separated from the rest of the rock by chemicals and heat.
This is the most common form of extraction in Australia and the United States.
In salt production, lithium comes from underground reservoirs in lakes, where salt water is pumped into a series of shallow lakes and allowed to evaporate for 12 to 18 months.
It is then subjected to several chemical treatments to leave behind lithium from “white gold”.
South America, China and Africa prefer the salt extraction method.
But unfortunately there are drawbacks:
- The extraction of salt mines is water-intensive. 8 million liters (500,000 gallons) of water are needed to produce one tonne of lithium.
- According to Institute for Energy ResearchMining companies in the Salar de Atacama in Chile, one of the driest places on earth, use 65% of the region’s water.
- Removing the brine lowers the water level, threatening supplies needed for drinking and irrigation.
- Lithium mining uses toxic chemicals that can contaminate streams, crops, local ecosystems and The wild nature.
- Isolated places can be home to the endangered florasuch as the rare desert wildflower Tiehm’s buckwheat in Silver Peak, Nevada.
- Mining operations in the Salar de Atacama are linked to the decline of two endangered species of flamingos residents of the pool.
- There is also what researchers call “the colonial shadow of green electromobility,Which is the impact Lithium mining affects the local environment and the people of Latin America. They claim that lithium mining reproduces the historical inequalities between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, especially affecting the local Andes.
Is there a greener way?
Both are working to extract lithium in the deep thermal waters of the respective regions with zero carbon footprint.
The process is based on naturally occurring renewable geothermal energy to power the by-product from renewable energy from lithium extraction. Deeper waters are significantly hotter than at shallower depths. This creates the potential for the use of geothermal water to produce zero carbon electricity as well as heat. This electricity can power the lithium mining planet, which extracts lithium from the same waters.
For example, Cornish Lithium plans to directly extract lithium from liquids in a processing plant that will have the size of a supermarket or a medium-sized industrial block.
However, not everything is simple, as both companies are still in the early stages of research. It is also unclear whether the methodology will be extended to other current regions for lithium production – but at least this is a step in the right direction.
Electric batteries will be a valuable source of energy for the next few decades. The challenge is to make their ingredients sustainable, but also to ensure that the currently circulating lithium goes through a full life cycle and is recycled in a way that does not adversely affect the planet.
Lithium-ion batteries will not disappear soon and we can expect to see further research and development in their impact on chemistry, utility and after life. Let’s hope it’s not too late.