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The Paradox of Lithium

lithium mine in france
Mining for lithium — an essential element to power the clean energy transition — can have negative impacts on the environment. Photo: TomTooM03 

The race toward net-zero emissions depends heavily on lithium — to power electric vehicles, to store wind and solar power.

This element of the periodic table is one of the main protagonists of the economic and infrastructural transformation that we are experiencing today. Our dependence on lithium recalls that of oil and coal that transformed our society in the past. At the time, however, the long-term effects of burning fossil fuels were unknown, whereas today, we know of the highly negative aspects of lithium extraction on the environment.

With this knowledge should come responsibility — towards the environment and future generations. We must not fall into the same traps from which we are trying to free ourselves.

Together with the powerful “curative” and “palliative” qualities of lithium on the effects of climate change, it is necessary to consider the potential “side effects” and communicate them in transparent manner. These side effects include: use of large quantities of water and related pollution; potential increase in carbon dioxide emissions; production of large quantities of mineral waste; increased respiratory problems; alteration of the hydrological cycle.

Obviously the economic interests at stake are enormous. Australia, Chile and China produce 90% of the world’s lithium. The global lithium market rapidly approaching $8 billion.

A paradox, therefore, can arise between “clean” revolution and “dirty” lithium mines: it is true that electrifying cars and other aspects of our society favors the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. However, after we consider the cost of emissions associated with extracting lithium, the transition may not be as efficient as we believe, especially when miners are not using clean energy.

Let us consider, for example, electric cars. To give an idea of this effect, producing a battery weighing 1,100 pounds emits over 70% more carbon dioxide than producing a conventional car in Germany, according to research by the automotive consultancy Berylls Strategy Advisors.

Furthermore, lithium mining requires a lot of water. To extract one ton of lithium requires about 500,000 liters of water, and can result in the poisoning of reservoirs and related health problems.

What to do, then? To begin with, we should invest in alternative solutions to lithium batteries. At the same time, recycling and increasing the lifetime of these batteries would reduce the need to mine huge quantities of the precious material. This effort should be accompanied by launching lithium mining operations with strict environmental laws and regulations, and investing in advanced mining methods capable of extracting lithium from seawater.

Remediating and reducing the impact of lithium mining is essential to be able to call the steps we are taking towards a new world “progress.” Otherwise, we are just going in circles.

Marco Tedesco is a research professor at Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

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KGW
KGW
1 year ago

Google Direct Lithium Extraction.

greg budd
greg budd
1 year ago

nice to read some truth every so often

Raven
Raven
1 year ago

And yet these (insert) haven’t considered that by far one of the best designs is still the 4 stroke combustion engine. The problem has always been big oil. These engines can very easily be modified to accept an alternative fuel where the biproducts are (shock and gasp) water and air.
Anyone who has ever worked with these know that these are not the problem with emissions. People are.

Last edited 1 year ago by Raven
Melbourne miller
Melbourne miller
Reply to  Raven
1 year ago

yeah but then they would not be as efficient and lithium is even worse then oil so your statement sucks and the lithium mines are ten times bigger so shut up with the problem has always ben big oil

Mikat
Mikat
Reply to  Melbourne miller
4 months ago

The article said it was worse to produce one 1100 battery vs producing a car. But not burning oil and gasoline for the life of the car. Lithium is a step up from oil. Now we must continue to improve onto something else thru the years.

Hugh
Hugh
Reply to  Mikat
3 months ago

Ummm, how do you think that they are transforming the energy to ELECTRICITY to charge the batteries? Yep – and we are talking WORLDWIDE here. Generally that means a lot more burning coal to feed the generators. Wind and solar can’t even handle the needs of other things. AND there is a loss of efficiency every time you add a step in the conversion process.

bob
bob
1 year ago

We should build hydrogen engines it would work the same as petrol and diesel engines and plus what comes out of the exhaust is water

Mark
Mark
Reply to  bob
8 months ago

And what do you think it takes to get the hydrogen?

Kelly Waliser
Kelly Waliser
Reply to  Mark
4 months ago

Treated wastewater run by wood waste, biomass, hydroelectric, or other clean energy sources is looking viable, abundant in any city and would cut costs along with environmental benefit of reducing the outflow of poor water back into the environment

Chaz
Chaz
Reply to  Kelly Waliser
4 months ago

You’d probably want to do the hydrolysis on potable water so that you aren’t having to treat it twice. Could probably replace the methane or natural gas that’s used for heating homes and buildings.

Mikat
Mikat
Reply to  Mark
4 months ago

Nothing as bad as oil usage and lithium

Chaz
Chaz
Reply to  bob
7 months ago

There would be no regenerative breaking with hydrogen, so a definite no for trucking, and not very likely for cars either. Why heat break pads when you could get more energy back using a battery electric then you could from using an air miles+ credit card?

Motorcycles, maybe, and also huge high power very slow vehicles. Everything in the middle, probably batteries, and lithium is probably the best element for it since it has a high elecropositivity and small size…

Not sure why there seems to be such disproportionate resistance for lithium from climate groups. Maybe pressure from those that superficially support in public then cry about having shorted Tesla privately.

Kelly Waliser
Kelly Waliser
Reply to  Chaz
4 months ago

With a hydrogen ICE and a traditional drivetrain, engine braking would be the same as a diesel engine, helped in part by the fact cummins has a handful of the engines designed off the same platform as the diesel engines.

Generating enough power for a class 8 truck fleet would require megawatts of electricity of which the grid will topple almost immediately after a few large fleets take to the highway on that system. Another issue is the weight and volume of the battery system takes away from the payload as each state sets their maximum legal hauling weight and bridge.

Environmentally speaking We do not yet know the effects of the toxic compounds released into the air, ground and water from cumulative fires especially in places with high collision rates and flood disasters. it could become the next Ethyl (lead) additive.

Chaz
Chaz
Reply to  Kelly Waliser
4 months ago

Yes, and “the same as a diesel engine” is less energy efficient, less green, more expensive, and less smart than regenerative electric braking. Why let the energy go to waste when you can recapture and reuse a large part of it? Makes no sense. The only reason diesel gets away with it is because fossil fuels are like a free savings account or trust fund given to us by hundreds of millions of years of plant life buildup that’s being used up millions of times more quickly than it can be replenished. If you actually had to make your own diesel instead of mooching off of the worlds reserves, like you’re essentially suggesting with H2, then you probably wouldn’t want to waste it on heating break pads.

At least a grid exists at all for electric. There is no hydrogen grid, so that’s not a reasonable comparison at all. Someone still has to make the hydrogen from the electrolysis of water and that electrolysis would have an even larger energy requirement and impact on the grid than just charging the batteries. That’s just basic conservation of energy. Unless you plan on playing superficial and ineffectual shell games (scams) with dirty hydrogen produced from fossil fuels you’re going to need to get the same amount of energy from somewhere. If we assume that you’re right and can’t get it from a green electric grid, then you’ll need local rooftop solar either way (not a problem for fleets with plenty of surface area above parking lots and cheap land far from cities).

Since solar panels pay for themselves before their end of life, you spend much less on energy per lb of shipped product anyway(even without carbon being properly taxed the way it should be). The per vehicle difference in weight and volume is negligible compared to the difference in fuel cost. Ie, just buy a second truck.

I’m pretty sure that issues with battery fires are overblown by archaic companies paying off the media so that they can rest(mooch) off of their laurels instead of innovating and keeping pace the same way that self-driving is. Maybe you can find data otherwise. Even then, it’s not as if fire suppression systems are impossible, but the real comparison is with ICE vehicles which literally start fires and combustion on purpose, so until those are replaced, it’s kind of stupid to bring up issues that scale with rare accidents as opposed to ones that scale with normal operation. Also, the analogous issue with hydrogen is a large explosion that’s much more likely to kill those involved in the accident, so i’m not so sure that that’s a great argument.

Mark White
Mark White
Reply to  Chaz
2 months ago

Solar panels do the same thing as CO2. They trap solar energy here rather than letting it reflect back out into space. Solar panels therefore equal CO2. Solar panels contribute to global warming. I don’t happen to have a problem with either CO2 or global warming, but if you do, you should rethink your stance on solar panels.

bollos
bollos
Reply to  bob
1 day ago

you’re thinking of HFCs, cars that use ICEs to burn hydrogen still pollute.

Tim
Tim
8 months ago

Wow what utter rubbish. Simple non truths about lithium extrapolated. The water figure refers to brine extraction..a non potable water source. The energy number refers to Germany, a coal and gas depenent country and even then the studies around life time emissions are conclusive. The worst chinese ev, powered by coal is still less emittive that an ICE car. And we are only atarting the journey. ICE is +100yrs of efficiency gains and still doesnt compeat. The amount of lithium to be extracted is tiny compared to the volume of oil extracted every year. Recycling means it isnt lost… unlike oil.
You reccomedation to “find an alternative” is madness. Look at the industry that is being built. The alternative is here. Its lithium get on board.

Greenteam
Greenteam
7 months ago

So far, almost no one has figured out a way to produce a fuel source that is nearly as cheap, reliable, and environmentally friendly as gasoline (AKA petrol).

Joshua
Joshua
Reply to  Greenteam
7 months ago

Who paid you to say that? Cheap, yes; reliable, maybe; environmentally friendly, definitely not. Biodiesel from soy or algae, ethanol as fuel E85 or higher, even Battery electric vehicles are all way less environmentally damaging than gasoline. Batteries may take lithium to produce but how do you think gasoline is produced because spoiler alert it’s not any better. On top of that BEVs run off of partially clean electricity whereas gasoline vehicles consistently use more gasoline thereby creating emissions. Now none of these alternatives alone can meet gasoline demands which is why the real answer is to invest into public transportation and power that with batteries. We are not going to make it as a species if we cannot stop requiring every individual person to drive a machine that cannot be environmentally neutral.

Chaz
Chaz
Reply to  Joshua
7 months ago

I agree with all but your first sentence. The fact that gasoline (petrol) can not be made environmentally neutral for mass transportation is why its also not cheap or reliable.

I could say that it wouldn’t cost a lot of money for me to eat my own arm for lunch, but that clearly wouldn’t be cheap at all. The cost of never being able to use my arm again, or having to purchase a prosthetic, would clearly cost much more than the money saved from not buying or making food grown the right way. The unaccounted, and externalised costs of petrol make it expensive in terms of real costs, not cheap. Also, it takes millions of years to form naturally, and more energy to form artificially, so it’s not reliable for variable or single use costs.

Similarly, allowing fossil fuel companies to be all of the companies with the highest nominal global revenues by engaging in global vampirism is definitely not a reliable strategy, nor is it cheap. Their strategy of destroying the ability for life on earth to do useful work to restructure our environment with the long term plan of “restructuring” their company to “get away with” paper or digital “securities” while also destroying the resource, crop, and climate security of earth is so methodically stupid that it hurts. It looks even more stupid when you consider that the cosmological evidence clearly suggests that that level of consumption is an unpopular strategy for universal intelligent life(as statistically, earth would have already been sterilized for future consumption), and arguably that sustainability is so much more popular that it leaves everything that can be described using all of Quantum Mechanics and science done on earth (baryonic matter) capable of describing less than 6% of the mass/energy observations of the universe.

Regardless, we can not continue using a stored energy resource which is analogous to a global savings account that should be used for fixed costs and long term investments to instead use it for daily variable costs like to drive/fly around in circles on the surface of the planet and expect to be okay, much less as impactful as life could be.

There’s some exceptions where we are creating long lived infrastructure projects and buildings, but even a lot of those rely on a grid of electricity, heating, or vehicles which all could be (but often are not) sustainable with respect to renewable energy, not heating the fluids of earth much more than required by any similarly working heat engine using said fluids as a heat sink, and crashing comets and meteors into the planet that are colder than the mantle.

I’d clean up my writing a bit, but past experiences with forms have left me unconvinced that this will even be seen by a real person, so instead I’ll happily add clarity if it’s responded to…

bollos
bollos
Reply to  Greenteam
1 day ago

“..environmentally friendly as gasoline..”?

lolwat?!

Saurabh Priyadarshi
Saurabh Priyadarshi
7 months ago

Very well written Marco. The world knows the black nd white of lithium mining or for that matter all negative impacts of mining on environment. However it still continues unabatedly .Mining permission should be given to only those who mine in an eco friendly manner.

bollos
bollos
Reply to  Saurabh Priyadarshi
1 day ago

oil mining is worse for the environment.

Bruce Gant
Bruce Gant
6 months ago

It took a while and the right wording to get at the truth without the search turning into another “EV’s have only a positive effect on the planet” commercial.

Motivater Richard M Stuart
Motivater Richard M Stuart
6 months ago

I don’t believe the article takes into consideration the technological advances that are on the forefront of environmental sustainability.For example, several companies have been able to develop and test Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) that utilize a fraction of the water mentioned. This should facilitate Environmental and Social Responsibility concerns as we move forward to net zero 2050. Nevertheless, while my response offered an opposing viewpoint, I really enjoyed reading the article.

Iceman
Iceman
4 months ago

Copy edit failure – it takes 500,00 GALLONS of water (not litres) to produce 1 tonne of lithium. That’s 2.2 MILLION litres!

Mirko
Mirko
4 months ago

Please help stop lithium exploatation in Serbia.
It is in a region where we have many galons of fresh drinking water.

Eric McLaughlin
Eric McLaughlin
3 months ago

what happens to the waste water? Also, the article seemed to indicate that fresh water is used in lithium extraction? Would this water be imported from remote locations?

Nikola
Nikola
3 months ago

i’m not feeling well since they are starting to dig lithium in my country (servia)

Nicki Pierce
Nicki Pierce
1 month ago

Lithium mining is twice as bad as any oil fueled car. Alos, I would like to point out that no one has addressed the issue of disposing of the lithium batteries once they are no longer useful. And, where is the energy to power all these cars coming. We don’t have enough power to serve out needs now. And one last thing, I bought a hybrid thinking I was doing good for the planet, not only am I not helping the environment, It costs on average of $1000 more a year just to have it.

bollos
bollos
Reply to  Nicki Pierce
1 day ago

oil mining is much worse. lithium batteries can be recycled and they can also be re-purposed as home batteries. solid state batteries (new tech) are way easier to recycle. most people charge up their cars at night when grid use is low. the maintenance and servicing costs for full EVs are way lower than ICE vehicles, logically!

bollos
bollos
3 days ago

11-Jul-2022: “Automakers and suppliers, keen to fortify an EV supply chain and avoid raw materials shortages, are turning to a domain once overlooked: battery recycling. Suddenly awash in interest from EV makers and venture firms, the sector has seen a spate of partnerships and funding deals in the past 18 months.

About 15 million tons of lithium-ion batteries are expected to retire by 2030, the deadline most automakers have set for phasing out gas-engine vehicles, according to AquaMetals. The Nevada-based metals recycler expects the market for battery recycling to top $18.7 billion by the end of the decade.”

https://techcrunch.com/2022/07/11/battery-recycling-could-be-the-next-investor-darling-of-the-ev-era/