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Energy environmental costs of lithium battery addiction  worldwide | Upload General

Environmental Costs Of Lithium Battery Addiction: Worldwide

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by: Sharai Hoekema
environmental costs of lithium battery addiction  worldwide | Upload

Lithium batteries. Most of us will be familiar with the term, if only for the way in which airlines nowadays expressly tell you to not put them in your checked luggage. They could explode mid-flight, release toxic fumes and incite electrical fires. 

Environmental Costs Lithium Battery Production

Those who have done a bit more research will know that these commonly house in our personal electronics, including smartphones, tablets and laptops. This makes them a crucial element of today’s world and therefore susceptible to a steady production flow. Yet lithium batteries can also be found in electric bikes and electric cars, which are definitely on the rise. 
Lithium piles

Lithium batteries power a significant part of our lives and will continue to do so even more in years to come.

Unfortunately, they are not exactly helping us in our struggle to replace fossil fuels with cleaner alternatives. The environmental costs of lithium battery production are huge, with entire communities polluted by the toxic metals that make up its core components. Lithium mines are located in some of the world’s poorest regions, making it a particularly harrowing dilemma.

Just a couple of years ago, back in 2016, the Ganzizhou Rongda lithium mine, located in China, experienced a toxic chemical leak. As a result, the Liqi river was polluted and ecosystems all the way up to the Tibetan plateau were destroyed. Dead animals floated in the water, both fish and livestock depending on this river for their water supply.

What does lithium look like?
Lithium is a very soft silvery metal, and can be cut with a knife just like butter. Lithium tarnishes quickly in the air, and will turn black within seconds. It is the lightest metal. But like all alkali metals, it also reacts violently with water to form lithium hydroxide (a base) and hydrogen gas.

Environmental Costs. Our Reliance On Lithium

It was not an isolated incident. In the past few years, there have been numerous instances of lithium mining causing irreversible damage to the environment and those living in it. Ironic, considering how many people are looking at it for its ability to help ‘green up’ the world. Electric cars rely on it, with Tesla averaging 12 kilograms of lithium in their batteries, as do grid storage solutions for renewable energy sources, requiring many times this number for their operations.

Recommended: Electric Cars: Truly Green Or A New Kind Of Liability?

So, it is hardly surprising that demand numbers for lithium have grown pretty much exponentially and will continue to do so in the future. Recent forecasts predict an industry growth of 800% in the next decade, from 100 gigawatt hours in 2017 to 800 gigawatt hours in 2027. All a result of the increasing number of products containing lithium - and their successes.

Lithium is a reactive alkali metal known for its durability and power, that can be obtained through hard-rock mining and brine water mining. The latter is responsible for 87% of the world’s lithium supply, mostly found in the salars or brine lakes in South America. The so-called Lithium Triangle, an otherworldly landscape of salt flats, covers Argentina, Bolivia and Chile and is home to over half of the world’s supply of this metal.

What are the main uses for lithium?
Lithium, atomic number 3, is an element of many uses. It's used in the manufacture of aircraft and in batteries. It's also used in mental health: Lithium carbonate is a common treatment of bipolar disorder, helping to stabilize wild mood swings caused by the illness.

Chili cobalt mining
People filling a truck with salt from the saltflacs in Chile

Environmental Costs Of Lithium Battery Addiction: Water Issues

The main issue here? Water. These lands are notoriously dry, yet significant amounts of water are needed to extract the lithium. It requires up to 500,000 gallons of water for each ton of lithium, a pretty hefty water bill. Chile has dedicated about 65% of its total water supply to the mining activities in the region, effectively robbing their quinoa farmers and llama herders of much sought after water. 

Lithium, car, circle
Amur River, Chinese, Russian border. This cold, remote region is where around 100 Chinese electric-car manufacturers test prototypes

In the example of China, on the other hand, the problem is not so much the lack of water, but more the abundance thereof. In order to extract lithium, holes are drilled and filled with water and toxic chemicals, including hydrochloric acid. When these pools leak or overflow, these chemicals infiltrate rivers and other water sources in the region.

water, lithium, pool, pipe, car, man
How is lithium produced?

The metal is produced through electrolysis from a mixture of fused 55% lithium chloride and 45% potassium chloride at about 450 °C. Most of the world's lithium production is in South America, where lithium-containing brine is extracted from underground pools and concentrated by solar evaporation.

This also affects regions that use hard-rock mining to obtain lithium, including large areas in Australia and North America. Traditional methods are used to extract the lithium, but even these methods still require the use of damaging chemicals. In Nevada, for instance, lithium mining has led to rivers and streams being polluted and fish inhabiting those bodies of water being impacted - for up to 150 miles downstream. 

Recommended: Asia’s Water War: China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam

Environmental Costs Of Lithium Battery Addiction

Even experts admit that it is far from green. It leaves behind devastating marks in the landscape, while draining water supplies and polluting wells, streams, ground water and rivers. This is a well-known fact that has led to many furious protests in countries currently engaging in lithium mining activities.

What are the environmental impacts of mining lithium?
Prolonged exposure to lithium can cause fluid to build-up in the lungs, leading to pulmonary edema. The metal itself is a handling hazard because of the caustic hydroxide produced when it is in contact with water causing an explosion. Lithium mining carries high environmental costs.

As bad as this sounds, it does not even make lithium the most dangerous component of modern batteries. At least the material itself is relatively harmless, when compared to some of its counterparts. Just look at cobalt, for instance, a naturally occurring mineral in central Africa. It is very toxic when pulled from the ground and requires careful handling. 

Lithium Battery Addiction: Unsafe And Unethical Practices

As luck would have it, it can mostly be found in one country - one that is not exactly well known for its far-reaching environmental policies and favourable working conditions, the Democratic Republic of Congo. With prices quadrupling in recent years, it is understandable why there has been such a rush to mine the material - the country is relatively poor and could really use this ‘cash cow’. 

This has resulted in largely unethical and unsafe mining practices, often involving child workers handling the dangerous material with their bare hands. All to make a quick buck.


Environmental Costs Of Lithium Battery Addiction: Worldwide. Inside the Congo cobalt mines that exploit children

And honestly? We cannot really blame governments and industry leaders in China, Chile and The Congo. They have found a way of lifting some of the burden of poverty that they have historically been suffering from, having quite literally found themselves sitting on a goldmine. As long as the demand is there, they will keep on delivering. 

Recommended: Consumerism In ‘The West’: A Society Built On Exploitation

Environmental Costs: Search For Greener Alternatives

As such, we need a green alternative to these batteries. Some kind of rechargeable, durable energy source that uses environmentally friendly materials instead. Researchers are already looking at ways of maintaining battery performance while cutting out lithium and cobalt. They key phrase here is ‘maintaining battery performance’: if these ‘greener’ batteries are in any way less effective or durable, chances are that they could eventually be just as bad for the environment. Simply because an electric car with a less effective battery will have a higher environmental footprint.

Is there enough cobalt for electric cars?
Cobalt, a critical raw material for electric transport
As the world's electric vehicle stock is expected to grow from 3.2 million in 2017 to 130 million in 2030, the overall demand for cobalt could increase threefold within the next decade, outstripping supply already in 2020

Another solution is the recycling of lithium, through the re-use of unwanted tablets, phones and laptops. This could be a win-win, requiring less mining and reducing pollution from lithium leaking in landfills when lithium-containing products are haphazardly dumped. Yet it has been an uphill struggle so far, due to the lithium’s characteristic of degrading over time and not being able to clearly pinpoint its life stage; as well as the secrecy surrounding the exact contents of each producer’s battery, making it harder to recycle as well.

The issue of ‘greening up’ the batteries to power our smart devices, electric cars, and other ‘sustainable’ inventions will hopefully receive plenty of attention over the coming years. Finding ways of saving the world will, after all, require a steady energy source that is already green in its own right. 

Before you go!

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Did you find this an interesting article or do you have a question or remark? Leave a comment below.
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Alan - 9 WEEKS AGO
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I wonder what's going to happen to, maybe a billion DEAD Li-ION batteries after 10-13 years - that's at up to ½ a tonne each. IE ½ a billion Tonnes of waste. As well as possibly a similar number of smaller ones in TukTuks, Scooters and bikes etc.

And home batteries, and power generation and industrial uses.

Maybe they'll be recyclable by then - but no sign of that yet.
Reply
Leon - 18 WEEKS AGO
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I think the world mine somewhere around 45,000 tons of lithium a year....1 mid size coal fired power plant will go through that much coal in one week, That’s open pit mining, with all the equipment, then transporting and burning. ..... this will produce over 130,000 tons of greenhouse gases a week..... for every gallon of gas burnt in a car... this produces the equivalent of 2.5 gallons of greenhouse gases in liquid form....
Google earth the mess mining and melting Alberta tar coal just north of Fort Mcmurray Alberta Canada....
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Walter Stuermer - 19 WEEKS AGO
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Literally everything we mine from the Earth causes environmental damage. I bet the author has copper wiring in his house and drives a petroleum fueled vehicle to work.

That's why this article is uncomposted horse manure.

Because the author doesn't bother to consider the alternatives, which are a thousand times more damaging to the environment than lithium mining.
Reply
Hans - 19 WEEKS AGO
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Dear Walter, thanks for your 'comment'. I/we agree with your first sentence. The second is doubtful. Copper indeed, 'driving a petroleum car to work' is an assumption. This article is about lithium batteries used in for example electric cars which many people think is a 'real solution' for our polluting fossil fuel cars. But is it? We are curious to 'hear' from you about the alternatives where the author doesn't bother about. What I understand is from the author there was no intention to mention 'alternatives' because the story is 'only about the mining and use of lithium. If it is about uncompensated horse manure, it is really good for your vegetable garden.
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Don Wilkie - 39 WEEKS AGO
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I dont think the human race will survive for many more generations.
Reply

Environmental Costs Of Lithium Battery Addiction: Worldwide

Lithium batteries. Most of us will be familiar with the term, if only for the way in which airlines nowadays expressly tell you to not put them in your checked luggage. They could explode mid-flight, release toxic fumes and incite electrical fires.   Environmental Costs Lithium Battery Production Those who have done a bit more research will know that these commonly house in our personal electronics, including smartphones, tablets and laptops. This makes them a crucial element of today’s world and therefore susceptible to a steady production flow. Yet lithium batteries can also be found in electric bikes and electric cars, which are definitely on the rise.   Lithium batteries power a significant part of our lives and will continue to do so even more in years to come. Unfortunately, they are not exactly helping us in our struggle to replace fossil fuels with cleaner alternatives. The environmental costs of lithium battery production are huge, with entire communities polluted by the toxic metals that make up its core components. Lithium mines are located in some of the world’s poorest regions, making it a particularly harrowing dilemma. Just a couple of years ago, back in 2016, the Ganzizhou Rongda lithium mine, located in China, experienced a toxic chemical leak. As a result, the Liqi river was polluted and ecosystems all the way up to the Tibetan plateau were destroyed. Dead animals floated in the water, both fish and livestock depending on this river for their water supply. What does lithium look like? Lithium is a very soft silvery metal, and can be cut with a knife just like butter. Lithium tarnishes quickly in the air, and will turn black within seconds. It is the lightest metal. But like all alkali metals, it also reacts violently with water to form lithium hydroxide (a base) and hydrogen gas. Environmental Costs. Our Reliance On Lithium It was not an isolated incident. In the past few years, there have been numerous instances of lithium mining causing irreversible damage to the environment and those living in it. Ironic, considering how many people are looking at it for its ability to help ‘green up’ the world. Electric cars rely on it, with Tesla averaging 12 kilograms of lithium in their batteries, as do grid storage solutions for renewable energy sources, requiring many times this number for their operations. Recommended:  Electric Cars: Truly Green Or A New Kind Of Liability? So, it is hardly surprising that demand numbers for lithium have grown pretty much exponentially and will continue to do so in the future. Recent forecasts predict an industry growth of 800% in the next decade, from 100 gigawatt hours in 2017 to 800 gigawatt hours in 2027. All a result of the increasing number of products containing lithium - and their successes. Lithium is a reactive alkali metal known for its durability and power, that can be obtained through hard-rock mining and brine water mining. The latter is responsible for 87% of the world’s lithium supply, mostly found in the salars or brine lakes in South America. The so-called Lithium Triangle, an otherworldly landscape of salt flats, covers Argentina, Bolivia and Chile and is home to over half of the world’s supply of this metal. What are the main uses for lithium? Lithium, atomic number 3, is an element of many uses. It's used in the manufacture of aircraft and in batteries. It's also used in mental health: Lithium carbonate is a common treatment of bipolar disorder, helping to stabilize wild mood swings caused by the illness. People filling a truck with salt from the saltflacs in Chile Environmental Costs Of Lithium Battery Addiction: Water Issues The main issue here? Water. These lands are notoriously dry, yet significant amounts of water are needed to extract the lithium. It requires up to 500,000 gallons of water for each ton of lithium, a pretty hefty water bill. Chile has dedicated about 65% of its total water supply to the mining activities in the region, effectively robbing their quinoa farmers and llama herders of much sought after water.   Amur River, Chinese, Russian border. This cold, remote region is where around 100 Chinese electric-car manufacturers test prototypes In the example of China, on the other hand, the problem is not so much the lack of water, but more the abundance thereof. In order to extract lithium, holes are drilled and filled with water and toxic chemicals, including hydrochloric acid. When these pools leak or overflow, these chemicals infiltrate rivers and other water sources in the region. How is lithium produced? The metal is produced through electrolysis from a mixture of fused 55% lithium chloride and 45% potassium chloride at about 450 °C. Most of the world's lithium production is in South America, where lithium-containing brine is extracted from underground pools and concentrated by solar evaporation. This also affects regions that use hard-rock mining to obtain lithium, including large areas in Australia and North America. Traditional methods are used to extract the lithium, but even these methods still require the use of damaging chemicals. In Nevada, for instance, lithium mining has led to rivers and streams being polluted and fish inhabiting those bodies of water being impacted - for up to 150 miles downstream.   Recommended:  Asia’s Water War: China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam Environmental Costs Of Lithium Battery Addiction Even experts admit that it is far from green. It leaves behind devastating marks in the landscape, while draining water supplies and polluting wells, streams, ground water and rivers. This is a well-known fact that has led to many furious protests in countries currently engaging in lithium mining activities. What are the environmental impacts of mining lithium? Prolonged exposure to lithium can cause fluid to build-up in the lungs, leading to pulmonary edema. The metal itself is a handling hazard because of the caustic hydroxide produced when it is in contact with water causing an explosion. Lithium mining carries high environmental costs. As bad as this sounds, it does not even make lithium the most dangerous component of modern batteries. At least the material itself is relatively harmless, when compared to some of its counterparts. Just look at cobalt, for instance, a naturally occurring mineral in central Africa. It is very toxic when pulled from the ground and requires careful handling.   Lithium Battery Addiction:  Unsafe And Unethical Practices As luck would have it, it can mostly be found in one country - one that is not exactly well known for its far-reaching environmental policies and favourable working conditions, the Democratic Republic of Congo. With prices quadrupling in recent years, it is understandable why there has been such a rush to mine the material - the country is relatively poor and could really use this ‘cash cow’.   This has resulted in largely unethical and unsafe mining practices, often involving child workers handling the dangerous material with their bare hands. All to make a quick buck. {youtube} Environmental Costs Of Lithium Battery Addiction: Worldwide. Inside the Congo cobalt mines that exploit children And honestly? We cannot really blame governments and industry leaders in China, Chile and The Congo. They have found a way of lifting some of the burden of poverty that they have historically been suffering from, having quite literally found themselves sitting on a goldmine. As long as the demand is there, they will keep on delivering.   Recommended:  Consumerism In ‘The West’: A Society Built On Exploitation Environmental Costs: Search For Greener Alternatives As such, we need a green alternative to these batteries. Some kind of rechargeable, durable energy source that uses environmentally friendly materials instead. Researchers are already looking at ways of maintaining battery performance while cutting out lithium and cobalt. They key phrase here is ‘maintaining battery performance’: if these ‘greener’ batteries are in any way less effective or durable, chances are that they could eventually be just as bad for the environment. Simply because an electric car with a less effective battery will have a higher environmental footprint. Is there enough cobalt for electric cars? Cobalt, a critical raw material for electric transport As the world's electric vehicle stock is expected to grow from 3.2 million in 2017 to 130 million in 2030, the overall demand for cobalt could increase threefold within the next decade, outstripping supply already in 2020 Another solution is the recycling of lithium, through the re-use of unwanted tablets, phones and laptops. This could be a win-win, requiring less mining and reducing pollution from lithium leaking in landfills when lithium-containing products are haphazardly dumped. Yet it has been an uphill struggle so far, due to the lithium’s characteristic of degrading over time and not being able to clearly pinpoint its life stage; as well as the secrecy surrounding the exact contents of each producer’s battery, making it harder to recycle as well. The issue of ‘greening up’ the batteries to power our smart devices, electric cars, and other ‘sustainable’ inventions will hopefully receive plenty of attention over the coming years. Finding ways of saving the world will, after all, require a steady energy source that is already green in its own right.   Before you go! Recommended:  Did you find this an interesting article or do you have a question or remark? Leave a comment below. We try to respond the same day. Like to write your own article about energy, batteries or recycling? Click on  'Register'  or push the button 'Write An Article' on the  'HomePage'
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