Lithium mining

If the Biden administration is to fulfill its promise to cut pollutant emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030, the United States must become a country without hydrocarbon gas stations and without the smell of spent fuel exhaust. All this sounds optimistic and wonderful, but what price will you have to pay for the realization of “environmental” dreams? Details – in the material “Izvestia”.

The Paradox of Purity

No dream is free – even the most ardent promoters of the green agenda understand this. But when ideal theories begin to be tested in practice, an unpleasant paradox is revealed: ecological purity can be achieved only by polluting the environment even more.

The battery of a Tesla Model S electric car, for example, contains 12 kg of lithium. Crossovers already need bigger batteries, and they can weigh hundreds of kilograms. The global nature of the task (and the extraction of mind-boggling profits for an almost infinite time) has been a fail-safe catalyst for the growth of demand for element number three of the periodic table for five years now. According to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, cited The Wall Street Journal, Lithium prices soared 240% in 2021. The rapidly growing demand for this metal has already secured its unofficial title of “white gold”. Cairn Energy Research Advisors estimates that lithium production will increase eightfold between 2017 and 2027.

Фото: Getty Images/Construction Photography/Avalon

But the problem, which the supporters of the green agenda stubbornly try to ignore, does not disappear anywhere. Lithium mining in at least two of the leading producing countries (China and Bolivia) is highly polluting.

In 2016, in Tiangong, China, thousands of dead fish surfaced in a river near lithium mines. The carcasses of cows and yaks were found along the banks, drinking water poisoned by the waste of lithium production by the Ganzizhou Rongda company.

It was the third such incident in seven years in the region. After the second incident in 2013, the authorities closed the mine. The ecological situation seemed to be normalized for some time, the waste storage facilities were expanded, strengthened and strengthened. But when the fishery reopened in April 2016, the fish began to die again.

Water procedures

Lithium sometimes occurs quite close to the earth’s surface. And in this case, it is relatively easy to extract it. But this does not mean at all that the extraction of “near-surface” metal does not harm the environment. In the so-called lithium triangle, the region between Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, in the dried up salty high mountain lakes, “element number three” is contained at a depth of only 10 m. desired minerals. But further, in order to obtain lithium carbonate from the feedstock, it takes from 12 to 18 months of time and a huge amount of water – up to 2 million liters per 1 ton of the final product.

In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, the mining industry consumes up to 65% of the region’s water. This is strongly disliked by local farmers and livestock breeders who grow quinoa and herd llamas in the very area where, even without extracting “battery material”, some communities have to transport water for their needs from other places. The Lithium Triangle is one of the driest places on earth. Withdrawal of water from the space surrounding the field affects the environment, and the delivery of water from afar is affordable.

Lithium mining

Фото: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency

In China, where the lithium-containing layer lies much deeper, the damage to the environment is even greater. But the Chinese authorities until recently did not pay much attention to environmental problems, which made the cost of lithium production relatively low.

Today, China uses about 10% of the world’s lithium, and recycles about two-thirds of the world’s production. 28.7% of cell phones, computers, watches – everything that runs on batteries, is made in Chinese factories. This gives Beijing control over valuable supplies and leaves the US, which produces only 1% of the world’s lithium, in a vulnerable position.

American problems

At the same time, the North American subsoil is rich in all kinds of minerals. Theoretically, an extinct supervolcano in Nevada could make the United States a planetary leader in lithium mining. According to geological exploration, it is there that perhaps the world’s largest reserves of this metal lie. The problem is that its extraction and processing greatly pollute the environment. Information about this is quite widespread in American society, and therefore the attempts of large mining companies, supported by the state, to start developing the deposit are met with tough and powerful opposition from the population. You don’t have to look far for examples: Lithium Nevada has received a green light from the Trump administration to mine lithium in an area known as Tucker Pass.

However, the company’s plans met with resistance from local residents. A coalition of Native American tribes and ranchers condemned the project, saying it would destroy the local landscape, poison rivers, and violate a Native American sacred site. They were able to halt Lithium Nevada’s plans for several months while the farmers filed a lawsuit in court. But in September last year, the demand of local residents was rejected. The start of mining operations is scheduled for early 2022.

Lithium mining

Фото: Getty Images/picture alliance

However, the plaintiffs did not give up and will continue the fight. And for this, I must say, there is good reason: recent studies conducted in Nevada showed that the discharges of one already operating lithium plant can poison fish at a distance of 150 miles from the source of pollution.

According to a report by the environmental organization Friends of the Earth, lithium mining inevitably harms the soil and causes air pollution. In Argentina’s Salar de Ombre Muerto, locals say lithium mining has polluted waterways. In Chile, the confrontation between local civil communities and mining companies also continues.

“Any mining process is aggressive, it scars the terrain, it poisons the land, it destroys the groundwater system and local wells,” said Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert at the University of Chile, in a 2009 interview. “Switching from fossil fuels to electric batteries is not a green decision. It’s not a solution at all.”

Additional energy costs

Among other things, the manufacture of lithium batteries is also very energy-intensive. According to experts from the Swedish IVL institute, during the production of only 1 kWh of battery power, about 150–200 kg of CO2 is released into the atmosphere.2. Thus, an electric car in which a 100 kWh battery is installed has already polluted the atmosphere with 17 tons of carbon dioxide without having traveled a single kilometer. An average vehicle with an internal combustion engine is capable of producing the same amount of carbon dioxide in at least 100,000 kilometers.

But lithium may not be the most problematic component of modern batteries. It is relatively abundant in nature, and theoretically it could be obtained from sea water in the future, albeit in a very energy-intensive process.

Two other key ingredients, cobalt and nickel, are more at risk of causing dangerous environmental costs. The price of these items has quadrupled over the past two years.

Cobalt mining

Фото: Getty Images/NurPhoto

Unlike most metals, which are non-toxic when extracted from the earth as ore, cobalt is “exceptionally terrible,” according to Gleb Yushin, chief technology officer and founder of California-based battery materials company Sila Nanotechnologies.

“One of the biggest problems with cobalt is that it is found in almost only one country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” he adds. “You can literally just dig the ground and find cobalt, so there is a very strong motivation to dig it up and sell it. And that encourages unsafe and unethical behavior.”

Cobalt in the Congo is mined from the ground by hand, often with child labor and no protection.. But this metal is capable of causing both acute and chronic poisoning and cardiomyopathy in humans, affecting the bronchopulmonary system. In addition, cobalt is well absorbed by fish organisms, as well as agricultural plants, which use wastewater for irrigation.

Researchers are working on new types of batteries that use less toxic materials. “But if new batteries are less energy intensive or more expensive than lithium batteries, they could end up having a negative impact on the environment as a whole. Estimating and reducing environmental costs is a more complex issue than it seems at first glance, says Christina Valimaki, an expert at the Elsevier think tank. “For example, a less durable but more environmentally friendly device could have a higher carbon footprint when shipping and additional packaging is included.”

Extraction and processing of nickel

Фото: Global Look Press/Serguei Fomine

At the University of Birmingham, UK, the state-funded Faraday Challenge is trying to find new ways to recycle lithium-ion batteries. Research in Australia has shown that only 2% of the country’s 3,300 tons of lithium ion waste has been recycled.

Since lithium cathodes degrade over time, they cannot simply be removed from old batteries and inserted into new ones. “It’s a problem of recycling any batteries with electrochemical properties – you don’t know where they are in their lives,” says Steven Voller, CEO and founder of ZapGo. “That’s why recycling most mobile phones isn’t profitable.”

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