Will lithium become the oil of the 21st century?

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This month, lithium developer Vulcan Energy Resources, a supplier to carmakers Volkswagen, Stellantis and Renault, received five new exploration licences for lithium in the Upper Rhine Valley along the French-German border. The move marks a step away from fossil fuel dependency. But how environmentally friendly is the use of lithium?

Lithium is the lightest metal on earth and its composition makes it ideal for batteries that are smaller but more powerful than their heavier nickel-cadmium and lead acid competitors.

Demand for lithium-ion batteries exploded with the invention of personal electronic devices such as camcorders, mobile phones and laptops.

Today, lithium batteries power most of the portable devices on earth and are increasingly used in electric cars, with car maker Tesla switching from lead-acid to lithium-ion 12 volt auxiliary batteries for its new Model S.

The big question is: can lithium be mined in a environmentally friendly way, while at the same time meet the growing demand?

According to a January 2021 Mineralogical Commodity Summary by the US Geological Service, 71% of lithium produced worldwide is used for batteries. Demand for the chemical "has increased significantly" in recent years because of the increased use of electric vehicles.

According to the survey, identified lithium resources increased to about 86 million tons in 2020.

In July last year, the EU commission proposed the "European Green Deal" which wants to implement a 100% cut in CO2 emissions by 2035, which would make it impossible to sell new fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

Individual countries have begun implementing rules resulting from negotiations held at UN climate conferences to move away from fossil fuels.

US President Joe Biden announced that he wants carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and a net zero emissions economy by no later than 2050 and China wants 50 percent of its cars to be eco-friendly in that year, and in 2060 they want to reach carbon neutrality.

Cutthroat competition

But the father of the lithium-ion battery, the 2019 Nobel Chemistry Prize winner John Goodenough, warned that lithium may become be the petrol of the 21st century, with cutthroat competition likely to deplete global resources.

"The uniqueness of the raw materials contained in batteries lies in that they belong to a battery electric vehicle decarbonised transport system, and we can reuse them through ambitious recycling policies," Cecilia Mattea, Clean Vehicles Officer at Transport & Environment told RFI.

"This may be good for the mid and long term. For now, a massive mentality change needs to take place, where the general public owns less cars, takes public transport and cycles more," she says.

Destroyed ecosystem

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in a recent report that the growth in EVs could see lithium demand increase by over 40 times by the year 2040.

Lithium may contribute to cleaner energy, but mining it damages the environment, as Bloomberg pointed out, describing how lithium mining resulted in the destruction of the ecosystem of the Atacama desert in Chile, home to the largest deposits on earth.

“We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining,” Cristina Dorador, a Chilean biologist, told Bloomberg. “The lithium fever should slow down because it’s directly damaging salt flats, the ecosystem and local communities.”

“One of the biggest environmental problems caused by our endless hunger for the latest and smartest devices is a growing mineral crisis, particularly those needed to make our batteries,” Christina Valimaki an analyst at Elsevier, told UK’s Wired.

Protests

Increasingly, communities protest against lithium mining ventures. In Portugal, the people of Covas do Boroso, home to Europe's biggest lithium reserve, are worried that exploitation will cause deforestation, air pollution, water contamination, noise and basically end their way of life.

In Minyak Lhagang, which lies in the Tibetan regions of China's Sichuan province, people protested against operations of the Ronda Lithium Corporation, which they say caused pollution and mass-poisoning of fish in the local river.

In Serbia, mining giant Rio Tinto suspended planned operations of its Jadar lithium project after mass demonstrations in several cities last December.

Alternatives

Despite the rising appetite for lithium, Mattea says it is not too late to prevent reckless mining on a large scale.

"The European Union has already started doing a really good job on that with the European Battery Regulation," she says, which was proposed in December 2020 and which will "hopefully be adopted" this year into final law.

It will "put in place rules on how companies should mine based on both environmental and social standards," she says.

Mattea points out that companies can refer to high environmental standards as set out by the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), the multi-stakeholder platform that certifies mines.

Car companies tend to switch to certified mines when under pressure to explain where the raw materials for their batteries come from, she explains.

Meanwhile, the industry is already looking at improvements and alternatives with the more stable solid state lithium metal battery which would offer a substantial reduction in size and longer lifespan, and perhaps, in the long term, take the edge off the 21st century lithium fever.

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