Race for metal to produce vehicle batteries impacts the environment
Humanity has a long tradition of solving problems by creating new ones. Another chapter of this story is beginning to be written with the race to electrify vehicles, the preferred solution for industrialized countries to eliminate emissions from burning fossil fuels. This choice also has relevant environmental costs, especially with the meteoric rise of lithium exploration, the main raw material for the production of batteries that power electric propulsion.
The rush for “white gold” – as lithium has been called for its growing energy importance comparable to the “black gold” that identifies oil – has drawn criticism from environmentalists who fear the adverse effects of large-scale exploitation of the metal.
Like any other mining activity, lithium extraction, refining and disposal processes also harm the environment, inevitably cause soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, contaminate water and air, according to a recent report by Friends of the Earth International. , FoEI, an environmental organization that operates in several countries.
The high consumption of water, an increasingly scarce resource in the world, is the most critical point of concern. It takes 2.1 million liters of water to refine each ton of lithium – enough to produce the batteries for about eighty electric cars like the Tesla Model S with its battery module that has 12 kilograms of lithium.
This feature of lithium mining becomes even more worrying because most of the known reserves of the metal are located in desert areas, mining contaminates and diverts water from where it is already rare – and essential for the survival of fauna, flora. and local communities.
Currently, about a quarter of the world’s supply of ore comes from salt pans in the Atacama, in northern Chile, where extraction and refining by evaporation, in huge pools under the sun, consumes 21 million liters of water a day. “Lithium extraction has already caused conflicts over water with different communities such as in Toconao, in northern Chile,” says the FoEI report.
More than half of the metal reserves identified in the world are located in the so-called “lithium triangle”, where the borders of three countries meet: Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. After South America, the world’s largest producer is the United States, closely followed by China and Australia.
Smaller deposits have been found in Zimbabwe, Africa, Brazil and also in Europe, where the only active mine is in Portugal, but mainly produces for the electronics industry.
Lithium has been widely used in the world for decades for the production of batteries for electronic equipment such as laptops and cell phones, but its application in electric cars leads to an increase in demand without parallel in history, which can cause environmental consequences that are still unpredictable, since ore has been so exploited – and will be even more so.
While 2 to 3 grams of lithium are needed to produce an iPhone 11 battery, the power module of a Tesla Model S needs 12 kilograms of the metal, but depending on the vehicle, this amount can reach 30 kilograms.
Some projections indicate that more than 60% of vehicles sold in the world from 2030 will be electrified and will consume 90% of the lithium produced in the world. By the end of this decade, world consumption of lithium for electrified car batteries is expected to grow from the current 350,000 to 3 million tons per year, according to Rio Tinto, the world’s second largest mining company.
The problem is that the extraction projects known so far can handle only 1 million tons/year, one third of the projected demand. With this, the indications are that the race for lithium should continue to grow at a similar rate to the price of ore, which continues to rise, raising serious doubts about the long-awaited reduction in the prices of electric cars.
The International Energy Agency, linked to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, estimates that global lithium demand is expected to grow 40-fold over the next 20 years, placing the ore in the same category as oil as an element of world energy security. .
Specialists point out that this is, at the very least, a very dangerous situation, given that all the effects that such an expansion of mining and use of lithium will bring to this already badly treated planet are not yet known. It is already argued that cheaper and less toxic alternatives should be explored, including research with iron batteries, hydrogen cells or even biofuels.
Despite being a finite resource, like oil and other minerals, there is still no shortage of lithium on the horizon, but most of the known reserves are difficult to access, which may make it unfeasible, in less than a decade, to electromobility based on lithium-ion battery technology.
Consultancy Fitch Solutions warns that the world’s lithium supply has many vulnerabilities, including geographic concentration in a few regions with a limited presence of large miners. As with oil, countries with the largest reserves can adopt nationalist and environmental policies that threaten the expansion of production.
In Europe, for example, lithium exploration projects in Portugal, Germany and Serbia are meeting strong opposition from the population. That is, the continent wants to adopt electric cars to clean up its fossil fuel emissions, but does not want the filth of lithium mines, preferring to sweep the environmental damage of electrification under the rug of underdeveloped nations.