Lithium batteries are not harmless to the planet. The extraction of this scarce mineral is an ecological problem, as also the recycling of batteries, which is not easy, as we will see below.
Electric car batteries are a big problem, not only because they are heavy, expensive and slow to charge, but also because they are made with materials that are much more scarce than oil and, above all because their waste is highly polluting.
Currently, the treatment process for lithium-ion batteries as waste is very expensive and barely 50% of their components are recovered, reaching up to 80% in the best of cases. In addition, the procedure to recover these materials is highly polluting and emits a lot of CO2.
For this reason, most manufacturers have so far opted for reusing these batteries instead of disposing of or recycling them, and Ecognom is a company that offers great guidance and assistance on the way to do it efficiently.
When the performance of lithium-ion batteries drops and they are no longer usable as reserve power for primary purposes such as electric cars, they are put to other uses such as emergency power systems, to light football fields or even for charging stations. In these services it is not so important that the loading and unloading is fast, nor is energy density an issue, so they can be reused.
Now, this solution is valid for those accumulators that have lost part of their performance, but not for those that have really reached the end of their useful life or simply have definitely failed.
One of the problems for recycling lithium-ion batteries is that they must be completely discharged for safety reasons in order to be dismantled and their components separated.
The enormous demand for cobalt and lithium is far from being ecological and sustainable.
One of the main arguments used for the transport industry to abandon oil as fuel and use other alternatives is that it is neither renewable nor infinite. This is absolutely true. However, lithium is still more scarce and finite than oil, and while synthetic oil can be produced, lithium cannot.
The reality is that the largest oil reserves are in the hands of politically unstable countries and that they escape the control of the so-called first world countries, which is a key strategic problem. This is undoubtedly a factor that has prompted the great powers to seek an alternative form of energy.
The problem is that lithium is not a solution to this problem, since no less than 85% of the world’s reserves of this chemical element are in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, especially in Bolivia, whose situation of current instability is far from fluke now that demand for lithium has skyrocketed.
That lithium has the same limitations as oil in that it is a scarce resource and that it is in countries not controlled by the great powers is key so that, in almost all probability, the future of electric mobility is in hydrogen fuel cells (a much more abundant element and to which any nation has access) and not in lithium batteries.
No one doubts the need to reduce CO emissions. In transportation, the solution passes through the battery electric car. At least, that is how the governments of half the planet seem to have decided to a greater or lesser extent, leaving a glimmer of hope for the hydrogen electric ones. However, with the need to reduce CO emissions due to the massive use of lithium ion batteries, we could be creating another problem, just as harmful or more.
Lithium is essential for electric car batteries and the demand in the next decade is enormous. Lithium is present in small amounts in the anodes and cathodes of the cells that make up the battery. And an electric car battery has an average of 160 grams of metallic lithium per kWh (manufacturers do not usually disclose this information). In a 50 kWh battery, that’s 8 kg of lithium.
As Hazel Southwell recalls in The Drive, the forecasts of General Motors, the Daimler group and the Volkswagen Group point to the manufacture of batteries with a total capacity of 240 GWh per year each within a decade. Each of them will need up to 38,400 tons of lithium.
If we add Tesla, Stellantis, Toyota, Chinese manufacturers, etc. to the equation, it is clear that there is currently no fast, effective and efficient way to supply that amount of lithium. And one of the reasons is that lithium is pretty hard to come by. For one thing, like oil, it is not found in all regions of the world. And on the other hand it is found in places whose inhabitants may not want their environment and ecosystem to be destroyed.
Lithium is often found in fragile ecosystems. It is true that there are large deposits in Chile, in the Atacama desert, and in the Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia, as well as in the province of Salta, Argentina (which is already the third largest producer in the world). In these cases, the extraction is quite simple and a priori with low impact in an area that is already arid. And yet, about two million liters of water are needed to produce a ton of lithium.
This enormous consumption of water not only affects the surrounding ecosystems but also has a huge impact on local farmers. According to the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (“Lithium Extraction in Argentina” 2019), which interviewed the ten communities living near two salt flats, Sales de Jujuy and Minera Exar, critics of the mine say they are concerned about the impact to long-term exposure to lithium in the environment, starting with the lowering of the water table, stating that the region’s cattle have already begun to die.
The consequences of mining on the ecosystem have also been seen in other regions of the world. In May 2016, hundreds of protesters threw dead fish into the streets of Tagong, a city located on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
They had been pulled from the waters of the Liqi River, where a toxic chemical leak from the Ganzizhou Rongda lithium mine had wreaked havoc on the local ecosystem. And it could go further, research in Nevada, where lithium is also mined, found impacts on fish up to 150 miles downstream from a lithium processing operation.
Now, the entire industry is counting on the new deposits inside the Arctic Circle. The Russian state mining company Rosatom (which incidentally also extracts lithium for nuclear weapons) is studying the possibility of opening a mine on the Kola Peninsula by 2030.
This site, called Kolmozero, is located within the Arctic Circle. In addition, also in the Arctic Circle, the Swedish company Artic Minerals AB has reserved other mineable land.
According to Jari Natunen, a mining expert at the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation, mining in the Arctic would be catastrophic. He says that the difficult extraction of lithium from the frozen earth would generate 50,000 tons of toxic waste for 1,000 tons of lithium produced.
The Arctic Circle has already borne much of the cost of materials for electric vehicles, as the Norilsk nickel mine – the most polluted place in the world – provides the material that is replacing the troublesome cobalt and has not done so. more than generate a new problem.
But it’s not just the Arctic Circle that’s in danger. Further south in Europe they also want to start up mining projects. In Spain, the Phi4Tech project for a gigafactory in Extremadura (where the second largest lithium deposit in the dollar is located) includes the extraction of lithium at the Las Navas mine (Cceres) as well as the extraction of nickel, gold and cobalt. Although the factory is viewed favorably, mining is not so much.
The Cacereo city council and part of the citizenry are opposed stating, among other arguments, that they do not want plunder that sacrifices the development of the city to promote industrial growth in other areas of the country where the material extracted here is worked.
In the UK, there is the Cornish Lithium project, still in the preliminary phase, in Cornwall. His plan is to mine large deposits of lithium for batteries in the south of the UK. The planned process will involve extracting mica from granite and blasting it with water.
This is what fracking has been to extract lithium. Next, essentially the same soluble method of lithium extraction would be used as in the Atacama, by evaporation in ponds with huge amounts of water.
Electric mobility and a neutral future in CO emissions is a very complex issue that does not have a single answer, as some manufacturers would have us believe.
Nobody questions here the environmental benefits of the electric car if the energy that feeds it is clean. However, we run the risk of generating a new problem, much worse than CO if we only look at one part of the equation, that of the car’s exhaust.
The journal Nature itself warns that lithium ion batteries should be cleaner and more ethical. There are solutions, still in the embryonic phase, for the extraction and processing of lithium that are cleaner than the current ones.
Recycling batteries and the lithium they contain is another. Political initiatives, such as the EU that wants 4% of the lithium in new batteries manufactured in the EU to come from recycled material by 2030, a proportion that would increase to 10% by 2035, or private initiatives, such as the circular economy factory of Renault, in Flins, and Tesla’s goal of recycling 92% of its batteries, are starting now.
Neither can we forget about hydrogen to contain the demand for lithium. A fuel cell car or truck (fuel cell technology) needs a much smaller battery, and therefore with fewer materials and rare earths inside, than a 100% electric car battery.
For example, the battery of a Toyota Mirai is 1.6 kWh, while that of an average electric car varies between 60 and 100 kWh. At the industrial level, more of the same. A Hyundai Xcent, like those already circulating in Switzerland, has a 72 kWh battery, while a Tesla Semi is expected to be 500 kWh.
In the end, quoting Nature, we must be clear that batteries are crucial for the Earth’s low-carbon future. We all care that they are clean, safe and sustainable.
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