Lithium mining, like many other mining has its fair share of environmental impacts. The extraction process requires an approximated 500,000 gallons or 1892795.89 litres of water per metric ton of Lithium. With rise in Lithium demand, the mining impacts are heavily affecting areas where the extraction takes place and thus limiting the access to water.
The process involves drilling a hole into the earth’s crust and then pumps out the mineral-rich brine to the surface. Then that brine is left to dry up for months until all the water evaporates, which leaves a chemical mixture of manganese, borax, potassium, several salts, which is then filtered out and put into another evaporation pool. After around 12 to 18 months, the chemical mixture is filtered thoroughly so that the lithium carbonate can be extracted.
Why Lithium Mining Demand Increases?
With the evergreen demand in cell phones and computer devices, the Electronic Vehicles are contributing the sudden extreme rise in Lithium demand. The lithium-ion batteries have been used since a couple decades. From your cell phones to personal computers, from your Bluetooth devices to electric bicycles, lithium-ion batteries have been powering them all. But all these are just the tip of the iceberg considering the immense rise in popularity of Electric Vehicles with their power-hungry lithium-ion batteries. It is estimated by experts that Electronic Vehicles will alone consume a minimum of 2,700 GWh worth of lithium-ion batteries per year.
To fulfil this ever-growing demand, countries like India and China are betting billions on lithium mining. China, although is a league above in lithium production than any other Nation by a huge margin, has suffered due to the direct impact of trade war with US. Since the inception of Covid-19 and the lack of transparency, multinational conglomerates along with smaller companies have been leaving the country since and shifting their production plants to different South-Asian Nations. India, being one of the fastest growing economies cashed in at the right time. Big companies like Samsung, Apple has already started producing their devices in India and the Big Shot of Electronic Vehicles, i.e., TESLA have already set up their plans to shift a big portion of their production from China to India. To meet this demand, Indian Private Companies have been pouring in billions and billions of dollars in lithium production.
Impacts of Lithium Mining
Lithium, also famously known as “White Gold” for its cheap and effective production. Environmentalists and critics have expressed their concerns against Lithium mining due to various instances of Environmental damage caused while production.
Although, there is no blasting method, breaking stones, acid spray involved in Lithium mining, yet there is the use of different chemicals which in comparison to other mining industries is way less toxic. However, in Tibet, there was a leak of harmful chemicals including HCl from the evaporation pools into the water supply. Many Yak carcases along with dead fishes were seen floating in the rivers after the incident. The tender environment of Tibet suffered heavily.
The biggest environmental threat Lithium mining poses is the massive amount of water it takes to process the Lithium. It is estimated that 500,000 gallons, i.e., 1892795.89 litres of water per metric ton of Lithium is used in Lithium mining. This poses major threat to the location where the mining takes place as it can most possibly cause famines and droughts for decades to come. A similar incident took place in Salar de Atacama, Chile. Lithium mining consumed 65% of that region’s natural water supply, which directly impacted the local farmers and they had to get irrigation water from elsewhere for their agriculture.
In places like USA and Australia, Lithium is extracted from rocks using harmful chemicals, which has impacted in their river stream fishes and the overall water life.
Lithium mining damages the soil fertility and contaminates the air. Contaminated soil and air heavily affected the livestock and water in Argentina and Chile.
Eco-friendly Alternatives to Lithium
The cathodes of Lithium-ion degrade over time and they cannot be reused in batteries. So, the researchers are using Nuclear Power Plant technologies to remove degraded lithium-ion cells. With the growing demand in Lithium-ion batteries, the once overwhelming amount of Lithium reserves doesn’t seem to be sufficient in the long run. Therefore, Scientists are looking into various Eco-friendly alternatives to Lithium-ion battery.
Here are some of the potential alternatives to Lithium-ion batteries:
- Graphene Supercapacitors – With the advancement in nanotechnology, batteries could get smaller and smaller or even come up with something totally innovative and new tech with more efficiency. Graphene Supercapacitors are one such technology. The supercapacitors can be charged or discharged more efficiently than a Lithium-ion battery.
Graphene Supercapacitors will be a big leap forward in quantum science once we can make it possible commercially.
- Solid State Batteries – Just like the Solid-State Drives took the data storage technology to a whole new level with fast transfer speeds. Similarly, the Solid-State Batteries could take the battery technology a generation ahead Lithium-ion battery.
- Hydrogen Fuel Cell – Hydrogen Fuel could also be the perfect solution for Lithium-ion batteries with way more efficiency and Eco-friendly production.
- Redox Flow Batteries – Redox Flow Batteries are a leap ahead all possible Lithium-ion battery alternatives. They are made with the combination of Hydrochloric Acid and Sulphuric Acid and are 70% more energy efficient compared to Lithium-ion batteries. The lifespan of these batteries is said to be four times greater than the Lithium-ion batteries and have a greater storage capacity.
- Aluminium Graphite Batteries – Aluminium Graphite Batteries have the potential to charge a modern-day smartphone in a span of 60 seconds and an Electronic Vehicle like Tesla in minutes.
However, the prototypes are nowhere near completion, but it holds a major potential to rival Lithium-ion batteries in near future.
- Solar Panels – With the recent Global push in moving towards green energy, Solar Panels will play a major roll in upcoming years. However, at the current stage, Solar Panels are extremely inefficient and definitely nowhere does it rival Lithium-ion batteries in the sector of efficiency. But, with many multinational conglomerates investing billions on Solar Technology will surely come up with a very efficient Solar Panels that could outmatch Lithium-ion batteries in future.
- Lithium-sulfur – Lithium-sulfur batteries are the future in battery technology. Big Tech Farms like Sony is working on this technology for a long time. They claim to have 40% better energy density and very low production cost in comparison to Lithium-ion batteries.
- Powered Road Lines – Sweden in a very innovative approach is building solar powered roads, where vehicles can hook in and get charged. But, the plan gets a big blow because of the massive amount of investment it requires for building the infrastructure. However, Sweden is optimistic about the project in the near future.
Lithium mining, unlike Fracking is way less destructive for our environment. However, Lithium mining still contaminates drinking water, air, land and the environment. It is not a rare metal and its available in a very generous amount. But, with the exponential growth of Electric Vehicles and electronic devices, the demand is increasing. And to fulfil that demand more mines are being build. Thus, we cannot avoid the environmental aspect of it and find an alternate Eco-friendly approach as soon as possible.