Lithium has become a significantly important mineral for the world economy in the last few decades due to its application in lithium-ion batteries. However, lithium mining poses significant environmental challenges.
Image Credit: Cavan-Images/Shutterstock.com
Lithium is in High Demand
Lithium, an alkali metal with atomic number 3 on the periodic table, is a relatively rare mineral making up just 0.0007% of the earth’s crust. It was discovered in 1817 by Johan August Arfvedson, and is generally found in minerals and salts rather than by itself due to its high reactivity.
There are several applications for lithium, but it is most widely used as an ion material for batteries. In 2021, over two-thirds of all lithium mined was estimated to be used for batteries.
Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries have (literally and figuratively) powered most consumer electronic products of the last few decades. Smartphones and laptops require lithium-ion batteries to run with enough energy to power the extremely high levels of computer processing.
Lithium-ion batteries are also essential for renewable energy at their current technological limitations. Renewable power sources tend to be inconsistent, so battery storage is required to stabilize the energy they generate and supply it to the grid without causing surges or dissipating large amounts of generated electricity.
Electric vehicles and electricity-powered industrial machinery also require lithium batteries, as it is the best available battery material for the high-power, rechargeable batteries required in these kinds of applications.
The world consumption of lithium was estimated to be 56,000 tons in 2020, and it is still rising. According to some industry estimates, the demand for lithium-ion batteries will reach 2.2 million tons each year by the end of this decade.
Challenges in Mining Lithium
Lithium can be mined from continental brines, geothermal brines, hectorite, oilfield brines, and pegmatites. Most of the world’s lithium production comes from just five mineral mines in Australia, two continental brine deposits each in Argentina, Chile, and China, and one mineral mine in China.
There are more brine-based and mineral-based lithium operations worldwide, but these are not yet producing lithium. According to economists, the industry must find and extract five times as much lithium as current production allows by 2050.
But lithium mining – like many extraction industries – poses significant environmental, health, and social challenges.
Environmental problems mainly come in three forms: carbon emissions, land use changes, and water use and contamination.
Hard rock mines, such as the two in Australia and one in China, extract lithium from open pit mines and roast it using fossil fuels. This leaves scars on the landscape, preventing growth and destabilizing local ecosystems. Mineral mining also uses large quantities of water and energy. Analysts have found that 15 tons of carbon dioxide are released for every ton of lithium produced from mineral extraction.
Extracting lithium from underground brine reservoirs (as in Chile, Argentina, and China) is not much better. This requires even more water to extract the lithium, often in short supply in the regions where underground brine reservoirs are found. Lithium extraction can require 1.9 million liters of water for every ton of lithium produced.
Water pollution from lithium mining operations is known to kill aquatic life and contaminate surface waters and drinking water. It is associated with respiratory problems in human and animal life, degrades ecosystems, and damages the landscape.
Lithium mine byproducts include large amounts of magnesium and lime waste, for which there is currently no widely adopted remediation procedure.
Lithium mines also create social problems. Researchers have found that indigenous people in Argentina have not been properly consulted and consent has not been sought for extraction operations. Mining companies have been found to control these communities’ access to information about the dangers of lithium mining.
A new lithium mining development in Nevada, USA (Thacker Pass), has been met with lawsuits from several indigenous tribes due to lack of proper consultation and threats to sacred sites.
Opportunities for Lithium
Despite this litany of challenges, lithium is still (with the current state of electronics and battery technology) in enormous demand. Indeed, industry commentators often point out that low- and zero-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels will require large quantities of lithium to work at scale.
One solution is to find better materials to replace lithium. There is currently considerable research effort in this direction, with more common and readily available materials like salt and aluminum in contention.
Another solution is to close the loop on lithium batteries by designing batteries for a circular economy. This would salvage usable lithium from the millions of electronic products discarded yearly, and reduce the demand for freshly extracted lithium.
Better ways to extract lithium also present opportunities. For example, new mines are opening in Europe to extract lithium from geothermal waters. This method's environmental footprint is tiny compared to open-pit mining and continental brine extraction.
Geothermal brines are hot and concentrated due to the underground circulation of geothermal waters through hot rocks. This thermal energy can extract lithium from the brine deposits without resorting to fossil fuels.
This method is only recently becoming possible due to advances in geological techniques (including a focus on archival research) and modern extraction techniques.
What is clear is that demand for batteries will not abate, and that to make renewable energy viable at large enough scales to replace fossil fuels the supply of battery storage capacity will have to rise significantly. Whether these batteries run on ecologically extracted lithium, recycled lithium, or alternative materials is yet to be seen.
References and Further Reading
Commodities at a Glance: Special issue on strategic battery raw materials. (2020) [Online] United Nations. Available at: https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/ditccom2019d5_en.pdf (Accessed on 24 October 2022).
Early, C. (2020). The new 'gold rush' for green lithium. [Online] BBC Futures. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20201124-how-geothermal-lithium-could-revolutionise-green-energy.
Gasdia-Cochrane, M. (2021). Lithium Mining Issues. [Online] ThermoFisher Scientific. Available at: https://www.thermofisher.com/blog/mining/lithium-mining-issues/ (Accessed on 24 October 2022).
Katwala, A. (2018). The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction. [Online] Wired UK. Available at: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lithium-batteries-environment-impact (Accessed on 24 October 2022).
Kaunda, R.B. (2020). Potential environmental impacts of lithium mining. Journal of Energy and Natural Resources Law. doi.org/10.1080/02646811.2020.1754596.
Pilkington, B. (2022). Sustainable Alternatives to Lithium Use in Batteries. [Online] AZO Cleantech. Available at: https://www.azocleantech.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=1538 (Accessed on 24 October 2022).