Lithium Mining for Electric Vehicles — Is It Really a ‘Green’ Initiative?

Electric vehicles may seem eco-friendly at first, but the truth lies behind the scenes-lithium batteries.

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The article was originally published on WeNaturalists, as a part of the curated section by the editorial team. For similar stories, head to our Explore section.

When you first think of electric vehicles (EV), what comes to your mind? That they are eco-friendly or would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions? These are the reasons why electric cars were introduced — to become sustainable alternatives to fuel-running cars. The launch of EVs raised hopes because they seemed to promote environmental protection. Eventually, electric vehicles began occupying roads in many countries, starting with the US.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2018, the US witnessed 1.1 million registered electric vehicles on the road. China followed by selling 6,45,000 units in the first half of 2019, wrote Policy Advice. Bloomberg New Energy Finance stated that by 2040, 58 percent of the passenger vehicles across the globe will be electric cars.

These facts and figures demonstrate that the world is steadily adopting electric vehicles. You may be wondering if this would be good for the environment. Right? Well, not really. Increasing demand for EVs has also led to the rising need for lithium.

Did you know? Electric vehicles require lithium batteries and tonnes of lithium is derived from mining, and naturalists often criticize this. They believe that the environment pays a high cost for electric vehicles due to the involvement of mining activities.

Lithium and Lithium Mining

Lithium is considered the key ingredient for the energy transition in cars. How so? Lithium-ion batteries are utilized to power EVs and store grid-scale electricity. Since many countries are advocating for electric cars globally, lithium mining is also occurring around the world. Until now, lithium deposits have been discovered in Chile, Australia, China, Austria, Serbia, and Finland, but Portugal is the hotspot for lithium. A UK-based mining company, Savannah Resources, reportedly invested several months on geological maps and surveys to find a lithium mining spot in Portugal.

What is really involved in lithium mining?

In the mining process, saltwater containing lithium is pumped onto the surface from underground lakes. They are subjected to evaporation in large basins, and the remaining saline solution undergoes further processing. This step continues until the lithium is suitable for application in batteries. In short, the entire process consumes a lot of water and also poses other threats to the environment.

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Impacts of Lithium Mining on the Environment

The extraction of lithium from salars is known to be associated with droughts that threaten livestock farming or result in the drying of vegetation. This step is debatable where experts are unsure of the extent of drought that can be attributed to lithium mining. On the other hand, some others argue that the extraction of saltwater may affect the groundwater quality at the edge of the salars.

An interesting fact about salars and water consumption — in Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining of lithium and other minerals utilized 65 percent of the water. This huge water consumption causes groundwater depletion, soil contamination, and other types of environmental degradation. The UN stated that the impact is so extensive that local communities abandon their settlements.

Here people were of the assumption that EVs are sustainable, but not many are familiar with these adverse environmental impacts.

There’s more…

Edward Bartell’s ranch in Nevada is another example of the potentially harmful effects of the excessive water consumed by lithium mining. Bartell’s ranch has nearly 500 cattle that roam freely in the 50,000 acres plot. Economic Times mentioned that a few miles from Bartell’s ranch would witness Lithium America’s open-pit mine work. This mine is anticipated to be one of the largest mines in America. It would reach a depth of approximately 370 ft. As per Lithium America, the mine would consume nearly 3,224 gallons of water per minute.

Who would have imagined that electric vehicles have such huge water demand!

And the risk? This high water consumption could cause the water table to shift and drop on Bartell’s land. Not only that. The mine can also potentially cause groundwater contamination with lithium, antimony, arsenic, and other metals.

Lithium America is just one example of a lithium mining company that can affect livestock, groundwater, and water quality. Several lithium mining firms exist, which makes naturalists worry about their collective impact on the environment.

What if there were better options to develop batteries for electric vehicles?

Alternatives to Lithium Batteries

The UNCTAD suggested a good solution to overcome the negative environmental effects associated with EVs. They recommend investing more in sustainable choices with better raw materials and recycling options to mitigate the impacts of lithium mining. That would mean choosing one of these options as sustainable alternatives to lithium for battery production:

1. Zinc — because it is available in abundance globally and comes at a low cost. A company called NantEnergy innovated a method that enables zinc to retain its charge for long durations. However, strategies are yet to be implemented to ensure commercial viability with zinc batteries.

2. Sodium-sulfur batteries — Another good alternative to lithium. Why? Sodium-sulfur batteries offer longer shelf life than lithium, are found in abundance, and are inexpensive. Aren’t these perfect features to make them suitable alternatives to lithium batteries?

3. Hydrogen Fuel cells — Probably the least considered alternative, these cells have a greater energy-to-weight ratio than lithium batteries. What’s more? Hydrogen fuel cells utilize less carbon dioxide than lithium, are light in weight, and require small spaces. It just so happens that hydrogen fuel cells may be better than lithium and zinc. How so? They have higher availability than the prior options.

Switching from lithium to other batteries could perhaps make EVs more sustainable.

However, the transition from fuel-powered cars to electric ones is associated with another problem, irrespective of the material of the battery — the potential doom of the oil producers.

EVs v/s the Oil Industry

Experts fear that the increasing acceptance of electric vehicles may establish downward pressure on the global oil demand. The decreasing demand for petroleum could affect major oil-producing countries, mainly in the Gulf, which derive nearly 90 percent of export earnings from the petroleum sector. The economy of oil producers may be adversely impacted by the introduction of EVs, meaning the possibility of affecting several livelihoods. So, not only are EVs associated with environmental impacts, but they may also have socio-economic consequences.

More importantly, the motive behind electric cars may be to save the earth and promote green living, but it could end up costing the environment’s well-being.

Perhaps no one anticipated these adverse impacts of electric vehicles. Did you?

Sources: Guardian, VolkswagenAg, UNCTAD, IEEE, Economic Times, PolicyAdvice, IEA, Hoover

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