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Lithium Mining: A Necessary Evil or Ticking Time Bomb?

Written by PengCheng Zhu '26

Edited by Jacqueline Cho '24

Lithium Mining at Salar del Hombre Muerto, Argentina.jpg, 09-10-2018. Wikimedia Commons.


Electric cars are the only cars that lawmakers around the world want for the future. France and Germany have set 2040 as the year when fossil fuel-powered cars can no longer be sold; China has set an earlier date of 2035. But other countries are even more ambitious—Belgium, Ireland, and the Netherlands have marked 2030 as their deadline, and Norway is leading the pack with its eyes set on 2025. While this policy isn’t a big national topic in US politics, California is trying to nudge the rest of the country by setting 2035 as its own state-wide deadline for fossil fuel-powered car sales [1].


These restrictions on the sale of fossil fuel-powered cars increase the demand for more electric cars. Unlike traditional automobiles with combustion engines, electric cars operate on large batteries. Currently, major electric carmakers see lithium as the best primary material for their car batteries because a lithium-ion battery holds a lot of energy for very little weight, recharges very fast, and lasts for a long time compared to other materials [2].


If a lot more electric cars are needed in the future to replace gas-powered ones, then the world also needs a lot more lithium. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the annual lithium demand in 2030 is projected to be more than quadruple the 2021 amount, from 465,000 to 2,114,000 metric tons [3]. Australia is currently the world’s biggest lithium producer, but the majority of the world’s lithium reserves is in “The Lithium Triangle,” a region of Latin America contained in the borders of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Naturally, Chile and Argentina are the world’s second and fourth largest lithium producers, with China coming in third.


The most economically efficient method of extracting lithium is brine extraction. Essentially, lithium-rich water from underground is pumped above ground into giant pools under the sun, allowing the brine water to evaporate. This leaves behind lithium salts that can be further refined into pure lithium. The mining companies happily pocket around $75,000 per ton, and local governments hail the extraction as progress towards a high-tech, green, and prosperous future.


Unfortunately, a few issues cast a looming shadow over that euphoric vision.


The first big issue is lithium mining’s massive water usage—pumping brine up requires pumping water down. To produce a metric ton of lithium, 500,000 gallons of water need to be expended. What makes this process especially painful is the fact that the Lithium Triangle is located in a very arid region, with the Lickanantay, Kolla, Quechua and Aymara peoples relying on the same aquifers as the mining companies. Clemente Flores of the Kolla community sums up the situation: “For state officials and impresarios the salt flats are a simple resource to exploit and obtain profits. For us indigenous (originario) peoples, our salt flat means life itself” [4].


Anti-lithium mining movements have sprung up in the Triangle: “Water is worth more than lithium,” one slogan says. “We don’t eat batteries,” says another. The tragic irony here is that lithium mining is the very solution by which national politicians promise to save the world from climate change. But despite the rhetoric that indigenous peoples are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, the current solution to that very problem will further pollute indigenous lands.


Another big issue with lithium mining is its effect on living things. In nature, lithium is found in trace amounts with very few known biological functions. However, researchers have recently found that excess lithium in water has caused more human cells to self-destruct and can interfere with cardiomyocytes—the cells in the heart that make it contract. It is troubling, then, that near Shanghai, one of the most active cities to promote the development of electric vehicles, the concentration of lithium in Yangtze River is 1.80 mg/L. This is many times over the normal concentration of 0.04 mg/L in freshwater [5] The situation is even more dramatic in Tibet, the region of China where lithium is actually being mined. In 2016, a toxic chemical leak from the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine seeped into the nearby Liqi river, causing masses of dead fish to surface. Some eyewitnesses even reported seeing cow and yak carcasses floating downstream [6].


Given all the hidden costs of lithium, it is no wonder then that many experts are calling for significantly more extensive lithium-recycling programs. However, the existing lithium recycling techniques have their own problems with secondary pollution and energy usage, as well as trouble with the quality of lithium recovered [7]. Therefore, it is imperative to not only improve and optimize lithium recycling methods, but also to implement frameworks on lithium mining that will integrate the wishes of local indigenous communities and closely monitor the interactions of the extracted lithium with the environment. Until then, the transition from oil to electricity may prove far more painful than anticipated.

 

References

[1] Fleming S. China is set to sell only 'new-energy' vehicles by 2035 [Internet]. World Economic Forum. 2020 [cited 2022Nov5]. Available from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/china-bans-fossil-fuel-vehicles-electric/


[2] Teuchies J, Cox TJS, Van Itterbeeck K, Meysman FJR, Blust R. The impact of scrubber discharge on the water quality in estuaries and Ports - Environmental Sciences Europe [Internet]. SpringerLink. Springer Berlin Heidelberg; 2020 [cited 2022Nov5]. Available from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s12302-020-00380-z


[3] Garside M. Projection total lithium demand globally 2030 [Internet]. Statista. 2022 [cited 2022Nov5]. Available from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/452025/projected-total-demand-for-lithium-globally/


[4] Voskoboynik, D. M., & Andreucci, D. Greening extractivism: Environmental discourses and resource governance in the ‘Lithium Triangle.’ [Internet]. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 5(2), 787–809. 2022 [cited 2022Nov5] Available from: https://doi.org/10.1177/25148486211006345


[5] Shen J, Li X, Shi X, Wang W, Zhou H, Wu J, et al. The toxicity of lithium to human cardiomyocytes - Environmental Sciences Europe [Internet]. SpringerOpen. Springer Berlin Heidelberg; 2020 [cited 2022Nov5]. Available from: https://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s12302-020-00333-6


[6] Katwala A. The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction [Internet]. WIRED UK. 2018 [cited 2022Nov5]. Available from: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lithium-batteries-environment-impact


[7] Jiang S, Hua H, Zhang L, Liu X, Wu H, Yuan Z. Environmental impacts of hydrometallurgical recycling and reusing for manufacturing of lithium-ion traction batteries in China [Internet]. Science of The Total Environment. Elsevier; 2021 [cited 2022Nov5]. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969721073009

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