Often referred to as “white petroleum,” lithium is an integral part of the lithium-ion battery that you will find in your phone or laptop, as well as powering EVs and providing energy storage for major electrical grids. However, lithium is proving to be a double-edged sword. The global demand for lithium is set to expand along with the rising popularity of EVs, which, according to Bloomberg predictions, could number over 500 million on the road by 2040.
To cope with this demand level, lithium extraction from current mining operations will need to increase, and new mines will need to be opened, exacerbating current environmental impacts caused by the lithium mining industry. Existing operations and large lithium reserves have firmly placed Latin America as the go-to region for future mining projects. Yet, the issues associated with lithium extraction have had lasting environmental impacts.
From drying out aquifers and destroying pastoral lands to polluting waterways and killing wildlife, the impacts of both forms of mining are noticeable, leading many to question lithium’s place in a world increasingly concerned with climate change and sustainable development. The damage created by lithium extraction has altered the landscapes of the Lithium Triangle in South America. It could spread to different regions as mining companies seek new deposits to exploit. The destruction of agricultural land and the infiltration of chemicals into groundwater are issues that not only affect local communities but reduce the effectiveness of the sustainable development efforts being promoted globally. However, despite the extraction impacts that lithium mining causes, the environmental cost of discarding lithium-ion batteries as an option for sustainable growth is much higher than adopting them. Lithium is an imperfect solution for a complicated problem—but it can be improved upon.
With the recent collapse of COP25 talks in Spain and the higher frequency of environmental disasters happening on a global scale, it has become clear that a solution is needed sooner rather than later. Mitigating climate change through carbon emission reduction is still the best way forward to safeguard future generations, and lithium-ion batteries have shown the potential to help spur a transition away from fossil fuels by finally giving renewable energy a reliable storage medium. Additionally, lithium-ion batteries’ use provides renewable energy with a solution against intermittency issues through its efficient high-capacity storage.
An electric vehicle charged on a fossil-fuel-powered grid will still outperform and produce less pollution over its lifespan than a traditional internal combustion engine vehicle. Renewable energy produces close to no carbon emissions. It has been shown to be more reliable and cost-efficient when coupled with lithium-ion batteries than coal or natural gas-powered power plants.
With no alternate method of large-scale power storage and ever-growing renewable energy and electric vehicle industries, lithium-ion batteries provide a high-capacity, less carbon-intensive and cheaper option than fossil fuels. Lithium is inevitable in the current transition away from fossil fuels. Technological advances are needed to ensure that lithium batteries’ production drives sustainable development without creating more environmental issues.
Innovation in the field of lithium mining has also led to breakthroughs that can revolutionize the industry. EnergyX’s LiTAS technology, which extracts lithium from brine pools, uses little-to-no water or chemicals, yields a higher amount of lithium, and is a lot faster than conventional methods while emitting low carbon emissions. These types of advances in technology will not only make lithium mining a more efficient process but further reduce the environmental impact of its extraction.
Despite the environmental impact lithium produces through its extraction, it is set to be one of the most important components in the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable world. Investing in innovation and new technologies will only improve and refine how lithium-ion batteries perform. Large scale lithium-ion batteries are already beginning to be established as the new status quo in auto manufacturing and the energy sectors. The time for action is now ‒ as is the time to embrace a lithium-driven transition.
About the author: Teague Egan is the Founder and CEO of EnergyX. He is responsible for all aspects of building the company into the world leader in renewable energy technologies. His focus is on all aspects of commercializing the LiTAS™ tech for lithium extraction and solid-state battery electrolytes. Teague’s background is one of serial entrepreneurship, investing and philanthropy. He has been investing in public sector energy assets and sustainable technologies since 2013.