Will Lithium Be the Next Oil?
The shift to renewables is chugging along at a record-breaking pace. In 2018, they made up 26.2 percent of total energy production, and that's expected to rise dramatically over the next several decades.
At the core of the renewable fuel and climate discussion is an equally important discussion about the future of sustainable transportation. Internal combustion engine or ICE cars may have reached their peak of efficiency, and even when efficient, they still let out harmful gasses into the environment.
Leading the charge for alternative means to power cars are electric vehicles, powered by batteries. Batteries have become central to our daily lives, not just in our cars, but also in our laptops, our phones, practically everything at this point. All these batteries require something that isn't exactly commonplace or easily sourced though: lithium.
Lithium-ion batteries, or even just lithium-based batteries in general, are drastically more efficient and sustainable than any other battery technique when you factor in cost to the calculation. They also have significant energy density compared to cost-effective alternatives, which makes them perfect for all our devices, and for our electric cars.
But sourcing the massive amount of lithium needed to keep up all this battery production is actually quite environmentally damaging. In fact, if the infrastructure of sourcing and mining these minerals goes unchecked, it will be verging on an environmental disaster.
How and where lithium is mined
Over 50 percent of the entire world's lithium reserves are found in the "lithium triangle" in South America. This area covers Argentina, Bolivia and Chile and it's one of the driest places on earth - which is an issue.
In order to extract lithium minerals from the ground, miners will start by drilling a hole in the ground and pumping in brine into the hole and then leave the brine to rest on the surface. As the brine rests, the liquid evaporates leaving behind a dense collection of minerals. It takes roughly 12-18 months for everything to evaporate off before the minerals can be collected in a certain region. As you can guess, this takes a ton of water.
The process takes 500,000 gallons per metric ton of lithium produced. For perspective, in Chile, lithium mining consumed 65% of the entire region's water.
This mining process also has the ability to leach other toxic materials into the surrounding water sources through groundwater or acid rain. The process tends to be a little more refined in North America and more developed countries, but even still, researchers noticed changes in wildelife up to 150 miles away from the mining sources.
All of this signals that electric cars and battery production as a whole isn't the green haven it promises to be, at least at the onset of finding all the lithium.
Lithium mining at the end of the day is still a mining process, which means it disrupts the environment around it and causes environmental harm that can be far-reaching.
Alternatives and the future
Even with all of this said, Lithium is a fairly abundant naturally occurring mineral. There's theoretically plenty of supply to last us for many hundreds of years, leaving room for environmental optimization in the process.
There are also methods of producing lithium through very energy-intensive processes involving sea-water.
The demand for lithium and lithium production continues to skyrocket, as does the price per metric ton. In 2014, the price was roughly 6.5 thousand USD. In 2016, it had climbed to 9 thousand. Today, the price per metric ton is as high as 17 thousand USD.
Lithium production and geography also might play a troubling role in the future of the lithium industry. Most of the world's lithium is located underground land owned by non-wealthy countries. This has lead and may lead to more unethical mining practices, little care for the environment, and intense political brawls to gain control of this potential future wealth.
This geographic locality of the mineral also alows for the potential of an organization similar to oil's OPEC to gain control of the production and distribution of the mineral. In many ways, the way we see the lithium industry, now reaching the end of its phase of infancy, is similar to the beginning of the oil boom.
Can we recycle lithium batteries?
Recycling of lithium batteries is also a fairly new and not widely used process. Batteries, in general, are fairly hard to cost-effectively recycle, so in large part it isn't done.
As lithium cathodes degrade as they are used, it's hard to get an accurate chemical picture of what's taking place in that battery for recycling purposes. This means that in small-scale battery scenarios, like smartphone or other electronic batteries, it just doesn't make sense to recycle the battery for the potential minuscule chemical payoff.
Modern battery manufacturers also keep their battery technology under lock and key due to the competitiveness of the industry. This ultimately means that no recycling company can have a good idea of how to recycle a given battery without extensive testing on the batteries themselves. Better yet, due to technology's constant innovation cycles.
At the end of the day, the future of lithium battery production seems bright, but the future of the environment as a result of lithium mining seems a little uncertain. It's all too common for the consumers of technology that use lithium batteries, simply due to who can afford them, to be unaware of the environmental disaster that the creation of these products are causing on other sides of the world, perhaps in areas where there are no media.
With the rapid growth of technology and battery development, lithium seems poised to be the next oil. Curious how the shift from non-renewable energies like fossil fuels has lead us to a potential renewable energy system – that is completely dependent upon non-renewable environmentally harmful resources.
Lithium is the best energy storage option available today but may not be for long as humanity turns to simpler options.