The world is increasingly looking at a green energy future with lesser reliance on fossil fuels as countries accelerate their transition to electric cars and products powered by clean energy.
So, where does ‘Lithium’ fit in all this? Lithium popularly called ‘white gold’ is a soft silvery-white metal (cover picture shows lithium ingots) and is the magic ingredient in lithium-ion batteries that powers everything from our mobile phones, laptop computers, watches, and electric cars. Lithium is the king of the battery-world, super light that it makes up only 1-2% of a lithium-ion battery’s total weight. Unlike older lead-acid batteries, Lithium-ion batteries can be recharged and discharged thousands of times. As a reference, a single electric vehicle like Tesla or Tata Nexon needs a minimum of roughly 10 kilograms of lithium to power the car.
Demand for lithium powered batteries is expected to increase tenfold by 2030 and if lithium is the key to a low-carbon future by electrifying transport, storing grid-scale electricity where is the real problem? The answer lies in lithium extraction.
South America’s ‘ABC’ and Australia:
Majority of world’s lithium is found in rock and clay deposits as solid mineral such as in Australia and North America , but South America has lithium in underground brine reservoirs below the surface of dried lake beds.
In South America, Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile are known as the “Lithium Triangle” and estimated to hold at least half of world’s lithium and lithium-rich water is pumped from beneath the surface of dry lakebeds called ‘salars’, and allowed to evaporate in the direct sunlight of the starkest deserts in the world.
Australia currently supplies about 55% of the world’s lithium by using traditional mining of rocks containing lithium ores, particularly a mineral called spodumene: a mix of lithium, aluminum, silicon, and oxygen.
Perils of mining:
In South America, availability of water is the biggest challenge. To extract lithium and other rare minerals, miners start by drilling a hole in the salt beds and pumping out salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface. The brine is then left to evaporate for months at a time in evaporation pools and then filtered to get lithium carbonate – white gold – that can be extracted.
It’s a relatively cheap and effective process, but it uses a lot of water ~ 500,000 gallons per ton of lithium. In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65 per cent of the region’s water resulting in water shortages , not enough water for animals to survive and impacting local communities that sell meat, textiles and crafts made from Llama wool. Producing local food such as peas and potatoes are strained due to water diverted for lithium extraction.
Poorly managed mining operations have left a legacy of environmental problems, affecting locals due to land transformation, resulting in loss of forestry, agricultural land and destroying ecosystems.
India’s lithium reserves and mining:
India’s first lithium plant has been set up at Gujarat in 2021, where lithium ore would be refined to produce base battery material. The Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India has discovered 1600kg lithium in Mandla district of Karnataka. India has been dependent on lithium imports from China, Japan, and Taiwan for its electric battery supply for a long time, which makes this discovery more significant and accelerates India’s energy goals of 350GW from renewable energy by 2030.
America’s race to power electric vehicles:
America is racing towards becoming a leader in producing raw materials such as lithium, cobalt and nickel as carmakers ramp up manufacturing of electric vehicles. China is currently the go-to place for batteries and to reduce reliance on foreign sources for raw materials, mining projects are being backed by investors rushing to get permits for production and secure contracts with battery companies and car manufacturers.
In California , a 110-year old Salton sea has briny water beneath it that is being planned for lithium extraction but environmentalists warn that water disappearance due to lake bed being exposed will result in several challenges such as loss of marine life, oxygen deprivation resulting in emissions of foul odors to name a few but with a bigger problem of fewer natural resources left in the decades to come.
Sustainable alternatives to lithium:
Lithium batteries do have a few challenges such as prone to overheating and catching fire, can’t charge quickly and limited capacity to handle sudden surges of current.
Zinc-anode batteries, aluminum-anode batteries offer sustainable alternatives that are relatively safe and inexpensive, have a long cycle life, and higher capacity to store energy than many other metals. These kind of latest solid-state battery technologies are still evolving and technical hurdles, high manufacturing costs are limiting their expansion.
Read this article on the landscape of solid-state batteries which are light weight, use ceramic separators for high conductivity , resistance to dendrite formation ( a phenomenon that can short circuit a battery and lead to overheating and failure) having potential to be used in a wide range of applications . Less weight in the car from a lighter battery system can reduce chassis weight, tires, brakes, and more, which can improve vehicle performance and efficiency.
If successful, these batteries could result in a 50-80% improvement vs today’s leading electric vehicles with better mileage.
It is undeniable that mining makes almost every aspect of our modern lives comfortable but the effects of mining on our natural world has transformed the surface of Earth. What is sadly left behind is a scarred future that has extracted metals locked for millions of years within rocks or underground. Look at these images that remind us that in our bid to live in a modern society we have reshaped our planet and nature to devastating proportions . Sustainability is no longer a choice, but our greatest responsibility and we need to collectively work towards protecting our environment and support all possible alternatives that avoid a climate disaster.