Thunderbolt & Mining
Electric vehicles (EVs) are frequently hailed as a critical component (ref: saviors) in combating climate change and transitioning to a greener future. While this is indeed correct, there exist a few pitfalls associated with how some of the materials used to manufacture EVs are sourced, and not everything is as rosy, clean, and green as it seems.
The demand for Lithium, the principal component in the cathode of a Li-Ion battery, has grown dramatically in recent years. Lithium is desirable as a result of its light weight and ability to store relatively high amounts of energy. This demand for Lithium is expected to burgeon in the years to come. However, most consumers are not aware of the dirty aspects of the production processes involved in the mining & extraction of Lithium.
To extract this metal, miners drill holes in specific salt flats and pump the salty, Lithium-rich brine to the surface, where it evaporates in massive artificial lakes or ponds. This mining takes massive quantities of groundwater to pump brines from dug wells, and some estimates suggest that over 2 million litres of water are required to create one tonne of lithium. Such massive water use has a significant influence not just on the surrounding ecosystems but also on local farmers and their agricultural produce. On several occasions, the leaching of toxic substances into the surrounding water supply may ensue, causing immense damage to the local ecosystem.
The story doesn't end here. There are other essential components of batteries, such as Cobalt, that are potentially just as, if not more, detrimental to the environment than Lithium. Cobalt mining in Africa is supposedly conducted in a manner that is unsafe and unconcerned about the environment. These informal mines frequently employ child labourers who extract raw materials while wearing little to no protective equipment. The dust they are exposed to may contain toxic metals such as Uranium, which have been linked to health issues such as respiratory diseases and congenital disabilities.
Battery recycling has yet to hit its stride due to factors such as technical constraints, economic barriers, logistic issues, and regulatory gaps, to name but a few. Today, there is a growing demand for the decarbonization of the entire process and for “green Lithium” that is procured sustainably.
The demand for Lithium and other minerals with lower environmental footprints appears to be growing, and significant funding is being poured into research in these areas. For example, it was discovered that extracting Lithium from geothermal waters has a minimal environmental footprint, including very low carbon emissions.
All of the clean technologies required to combat climate change are extremely mineral-intensive. We must ensure that these materials are extracted as responsibly as possible. It may be a few years before batteries made from zero-emission lithium are used to power our vehicles and other devices. However, if zero-carbon Lithium does take off as we all hope, it will become a powerful example of a mineral essential for sustainable energy obtained sustainably.
Could we have cooler and much more environmentally friendly batteries sooner, though? Find out in about 2 weeks!