The Paradox of Lithium

by Marco Tedesco |January 18, 2023
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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4 months ago

Google Direct Lithium Extraction.

greg budd
greg budd
2 months ago

nice to read some truth every so often

18 days 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 18 days ago by Raven
Melbourne miller
Melbourne miller
Reply to  Raven
9 days 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

15 days 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