With so much demand for lithium for electric car batteries, we are on the verge of a new pollution problem

No one doubts the need for reduce CO₂ emissions. In transportation, the solution is through the battery electric car. At least, this is how the governments of half the planet seem to have decided to a greater or lesser extent, leaving a silver lining for the hydrogen electricians. However, with the need to reduce CO₂ emissions via 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 will be huge. 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 on average about 160 grams of Lithium cash 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 quite 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.

Salar De Uyuni Bolivia

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 already arid area. And yet it takes about two million liters of water to produce one ton of lithium.

In the Atacama desert or the Salar de Uyuni, about two million liters of water are needed to produce a single ton of lithium.

This enormous water consumption 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), who interviewed the ten communities that live near two salt flats, Sales de Jujuy and Minera Exar, the mine’s detractors say they are concerned about the long-term impact of lithium on the environment, starting with the lowering of the water table, stating that the region’s cattle have already begun to die.

Lithium production

The consequences of mining on the ecosystem have also been seen in other world regions. In May 2016, hundreds of protesters threw dead fish onto the streets of Tagong, a city at the eastern end 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, an investigation conducted in Nevada, where lithium is also mined, found impacts on fish up to 240 km downstream of a lithium processing operation.

Lithium mines: from the Arctic Circle to Extremadura

Lithium Mine Extremadura

Lithium mine project in Extremadura

Now, the entire industry has the new deposits in the interior of 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 exploitable land.

According to Jari Natunen, a mining expert with the Finnish Association for Conservation of Nature, mining in the Arctic would be catastrophic. He says that the difficult extraction of lithium from the frozen ground would generate 50,000 tons of toxic waste for 1,000 tons of lithium produced.

Arctic mine

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 problematic cobalt and has done nothing but generate a new problem.

But it is not only the Arctic Circle in danger. Further south in Europe they also want to start mining projects. In Spain, the project of Phi4Tech from a gigafactory on Estremadura (where is the second lithium deposit largest in Europe) includes lithium extraction in the Las Navas mine (Cáceres) as well as the extraction of nickel, gold and cobalt. While the factory is viewed favorably, not so much the mining operation.


Raw Nickel Block

City Hall Cacereño and part of the citizenship They oppose, stating, among other arguments, that they do not want a pillage “that sacrifices the development of the city” to promote “the industrial growth of other areas of the country” where the material extracted here is worked.

Also, as you remember Santiago Marquez, co-spokesperson for the Salvemos la Montaña de Cáceres platform, the mine “is 800 meters from the town center and Cáceres is a UNESCO world heritage city”.

In the UK, there is the Cornish Lithium project in Cornwall, still in the preliminary phase. His plan is to mine large deposits of lithium for batteries in the south of the UK. The planned process will involve the extraction of mica from granite and its blasting with water.


Raw stone block

Is what has been fracking to extract lithium. Subsequently, essentially the same soluble lithium extraction method would be used as in the Atacama, by evaporation in ponds with huge amounts of water.

Electric mobility and a neutral future in CO₂ emissions is a very complex question that does not have a single answer, as some manufacturers would have us believe.

Possible alternatives

Tesla Recycling

Nobody here questions the environmental benefits of the electric car if the energy that powers it is clean. However, we run the risk of generating a new problem, much worse than CO₂ if we only look at one part of the equation, that of the car exhaust.

In the magazine itself Nature Lithium-ion batteries are cautioned to be cleaner and more ethical. There are solutions, still in embryonic stage, extraction and processing of lithium cleaner than the current ones.

Electric car battery cell

The recycling of batteries and the lithium they contain is another. Political initiatives, such as the one in 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 ones, such as the Renault circular economy factory, in Flins, and the goal of Recycle tesla 92% of its batteries are starting now.

Nor can we forget about hydrogen to contain the demand for lithium. A car or truck with a fuel cell (fuel cell technology) needs a much smaller battery, and therefore with less materials and rare earths inside, than a 100% electric car battery.

For example, the battery in a Toyota Mirai is 1.6 kWh, while that of an average electric car varies between 60 and 100 kWh. At an industrial level, more of the same. A Hyundai Xcent, like those already circulating in Switzerland, has a 72 kWh battery, while that of a Tesla Semi it is expected to be 500 kWh.

Hyundai Xcent

In the end, quoting Nature, we must be clear that “batteries are crucial for the future of the Earth with low carbon emissions. We are all interested in ensuring that they are clean, safe and sustainable ”.

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Lenny Li

I started to play with tech since middle school. Smart phones, laptops and gadgets are all about my life. Besides, I am also a big fan of Star War. May the force be with you!

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