Is Sustainable Lithium Mining Possible?
Indigenous communities of the Salinas Grandes protest against lithium mining on their territory
As the race for solutions to Climate Change intensifies, particularly within the tech space, one area that is overflowing with innovation thanks to the pioneering efforts of Tesla and their enigmatic leader Elon Musk is the Electric Vehicle (EV) market. Sales of EV’s are expected to grow by 70% in 2021 and by 2025, global sales will top 12.2 million, indicating annual growth of nearly 52% according to research conducted by IHS Markit. This projected growth and the stock market success of Tesla has led many of the world’s most influential car manufacturers to announce pathways to an all-EV future with GM expecting to achieve this status by 2035 & Ford investing more than $11.5 billion in electric vehicles through 2022 to name just two of these ongoing initiatives. This transition involves phasing out the internal combustion engine and the fossil fuels that power it, in favor of battery powered electric engines, a shift that has led many commentators to claim that car manufacturers are now battery companies and battery technology will therefore decide the winners and losers of tomorrow's auto industry. Tesla is currently aiming to build the world’s largest battery factory in Berlin with a monumental $6.9 billion investment in Giga Berlin while even smaller players such as EV battery startup Italvolt investing 4 billion euros ($4.9 billion) to build a factory in Italy in order to meet the growing demand for lithium-ion batteries from Europe’s automotive industry. But what is lithium-ion and does this multi-billion dollar battery rush have any negative environmental impacts that we need to be concerned about? Let’s take a look.
First of all - What is Lithium & How is it Extracted?
Lithium-ion batteries are common in many of the consumer electronics we use today such as cell phones, tablets & laptops. Beyond this space, lithium-ion batteries are growing in popularity not just in the EV arena but also for military and aerospace applications due to their high energy density. The main component of these batteries is obviously lithium with a typical Tesla Model S battery containing about 12 kilograms of the metal. Lithium is a light metal that makes up a mere 0.0007 percent of the Earth's crust and is only found locked up in minerals and salts. Most of the world’s lithium is extracted from mineral-rich brine beneath the lakes of high-altitude salt flats. Lithium mining is a process that begins by drilling down through the earth’s crust and then pumping the brine up to the surface into evaporation pools where it is left for months at a time. This creates a salty mud comprised of a mixture of manganese, potassium, borax and lithium salts, which are then moved to another open-air evaporation pool. After 12-18 months, the mixture is sufficiently distilled to extract lithium carbonate, the main raw material used in lithium ion batteries. According to Forbes by 2030, the world’s EVs will need 2,700 GWh worth of lithium-ion batteries a year. For perspective, that’s equivalent to 225 billion iPhone 11 batteries and 13 times more battery power than we use today.
Any exponential increase in the demand of one of earth’s natural resources such as this is sure to have a number of corresponding impacts, so let’s delve into just a sample of those knock-on effects:
Water – Lots Of It!
Lithium mining is a relatively inexpensive process but it uses large quantities of water – approximately 500,000 gallons per ton of lithium according to Wired. In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65 per cent of the region’s water. That is having a big impact on local farmers who grow quinoa in an area where some communities already have to get water driven in from elsewhere. Despite overwhelming opinion, water is not an abundant resource and just 1% of the fresh water on earth is easily accessible for humans and animals to use, and although this water is continuously replenished via the water cycle, the world’s ever-growing population is putting more and more strain on the fresh water supply. In developed nations the average person uses about 150 liters of water a day. That’s about a ton a week. This takes into account cooking, cleaning, washing, heating and flushing. As we adapt to climate change and population growth, our water-intensive lifestyle and other pressures such as changing land use, we need to find ways of using water much more efficiently if we are to continue to enjoy the high standards and constant supply that we do today.
Humpback whale diving near the icebergs in Ilulissat icefjord, Greenland
Many climate conscious readers will be aware of the role the world’s largest island plays in keeping our planet cool with the ice and snow reflecting a high proportion of the sun's energy back into space. The rising global temperature, however, is melting Greenland’s ice caps at unprecedented rates contributing to rising sea levels and the slowing of the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation - the process that drives the current that warms Europe, and powers the planetary climate. Yet Greenland has another role to play as according to geologists the largely ice-covered island has the world's largest undeveloped deposits of rare-earth metals including lithium. The WSJ recently reported that China’s rare-earths giant Shenghe Resources Holding Co. and an Australian firm were on the cusp of developing a mine along the icebound island’s southern coast when Greenland’s government called a snap election amid mounting controversy over the project’s impact on the environment. China currently accounts for 90% of global production of rare-earth metals which has both the US & Europe concerned and keen to exert their influence in a territory of only 56,000 people. In winning the recent general elections, Greenland’s left-wing environmentalist party Inuit Ataqatigiit, won a battle over the potential exposure of a unique, fragile area to “radioactive pollution and toxic waste,” said Dwayne Menezes, the director of the Polar Research and Policy Initiative, a London-based think tank.
When we talk about Sustainability or Climate Change we can not assess any subject seriously without taking in to consideration it’s impact on our ultimate goal of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. The lithium mining process can release up to 15 tons of CO2 for every ton of lithium mined depending on the method used, according to an analysis by the raw materials experts Minviro. As electricity production decarbonizes via the deployment of solar, wind and other renewable resources almost the entire GHG emissions of an electric vehicle (EV) will eventually be associated with its manufacturing and supply chain including the lithium-ion battery raw material sourcing and production process. The lithium carries a carbon footprint for the mining process we outlined earlier which has highlighted the need for decarbonizing its supply chain. Decarbonizing the manufacturing of the battery and the production of the materials that make up the battery are a necessity in order to truly enhance the value of EV’s positive environmental impact as these processes are still largely incurred on the back of fossil fuel intensive processes out of China and then exported around the globe. Some excellent LCA modeling by Jade Cove Partners found that using geothermal energy in the lithium/brine extraction process coupled with other methods of production greatly reduced the final battery’s carbon footprint and that in fact with no mining and no necessary fossil fuel inputs, these projects could actually have negative CO2 impacts when coupled with renewable energy being supplied by the grid.
A Large Step In The Right Direction But We Can’t Rest On Our Laurels…
Reversing the detrimental climate course that Planet Earth is currently on is not an easy fix and one that requires innovation across many industries. Tesla & Elon Musk have single handedly dragged the automotive industry in to the new reality we now all face. An industry that traditionally relied on and readily consumed fossil fuels in the pursuit of profit has been forced to adapt through innovation and that must be applauded no matter how we got there. It is absolutely crucial however that we do not sit still and pat ourselves on the backs for a job well done as there is still much work to do as outlined in this article by the need to decarbonize our supply chains, protect our finite resources such as water and avoid the mistakes of old by exploiting earth’s natural resources in areas such as Greenland which are so pivotal to the planet’s nervous system. With demand of lithium-ion expected to increase year on year, further effort is required in to the recycling process also. Research in Australia found that only 2% of the country’s 3,300 tons of lithium-ion waste was recycled. The good news is that heavy investment and research is currently under way in this space and organizations are also looking in to ways to develop a completely new mining process aiming at higher lithium recovery, less environmental footprint and lesser investment cost upfront. Continuous improvement is a must!
1. IHS Markit, Climate and Sustainability Research & Analysis, 19 January 2021 Kevin Adler
2. GreenBiz, Car companies are now battery companies, 17 March 2021, Katie Fehrenbacher
3. Science Direct, Lithium Ion Battery, Monisha Chakraborty, M. Saleem J. Hashmi, 2018
4. Wired, The spiraling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction, Amit Katwala, 2018
5. Live Science, What Is Lithium? By Stephanie Pappas, October 23, 2018
6. The opportunities and challenges of the lithium industry, Diálogo Chino, Sophie Bauer, 2020
7. Forbes, As Tesla Booms, Lithium Is Running Out, Dan Runkevicius, 2020
8. WSJ, China’s Greenland Ambitions Run Into Local Politics, U.S. Influence, Stacy Meichtry & Drew Hinshaw, 2021
9. Jade Cove Partners, The CO2 Impact of the 2020s’ Battery Quality Lithium Hydroxide Supply Chain, Alex Grant, David Deak, Robert Pell