Lithium is an essential component in many green technologies. It’s in rechargeable batteries, it’s in electric vehicles, it’s in watches, cell phones, laptops and more.
But what is lithium and why are so many people critical of its use and extraction? Here’s all you need to know about the ever-growing lithium industry and the practices behind it today.
Why is lithium important to renewable energy?
What is lithium?
Lithium is a metal that is known for its low density, high energy-to-weight ratio and its ability to store large amounts of energy. It’s also the lightest of all metals in the periodic table of elements, and its soft, silvery-colored metal is widely used for its heat-resistant properties.
Lithium is also a very old metal. In fact, scientists believe that it was one of only three elements to have been created in the Big Bang over 13.8 billion years ago – hydrogen and helium being the other two.
Though it’s one of the oldest elements to have been around, lithium is not nearly as abundant here on Earth as its gaseous counterparts. The metal makes up just 0.002% of the Earth’s crust, though arguably, that is higher than the supplies of tin, silver, gold and platinum combined. Lithium doesn’t ever occur naturally in its metallic form as it's highly reactive to the elements and minerals around it. Rather, it’s found in a crystalline form alongside rocks and other mineral deposits in the Earth’s crust.
What do we use lithium for?
Lithium was discovered in its crystal state back in 1817 by chemists examining petalite ore, though it was not put to use until the late 1940s when psychiatrists began to use it to treat mental afflictions. Its first modern widespread use was as a mood stabilizer in the mid-20th century, but lithium’s heat-resistant properties also saw the metal being added to soaps used to grease aircraft engines and other machinery during World War II.
Lithium is still added to glass and ceramic materials to bolster its heat-resistance, but the main use for lithium nowadays is in batteries. Because of its high energy storage properties, lithium batteries can power small devices for long periods of time without overheating — things like watches, cell phones, laptops, tablets, remotes and more all use lithium batteries to keep them going for days, weeks or years at a time.
More recently, lithium has been a central player in the development and production of renewable energy technology. Its ability to store energy has been crucial in capturing and storing energy created through wind, solar and hydro power, and many pieces of machinery or technology have lithium batteries to maintain and distribute that energy long after the source has stopped producing energy. Solar-powered vehicles, for example, can only generate energy while the sun is out, but the lithium batteries can continue to provide previously-generated energy after the sunshine is gone.
How is lithium mined?
We use lithium commercially in its metallic form, but like we already mentioned, it doesn’t appear in that state naturally. It has to first be extracted, then separated from its other minerals, then turned back into its metal form.
Lithium is mostly found in brine pools, brine deposits and mineral springs, all of which have high salt contents distributed through naturally occurring water. Salt deserts and brine pools in Australia, Argentina, Chile, China and Bolivia are some of the most lithium-rich locations on the planet, as far as we know, and it is where a majority of the lithium mining occurs.
To extract lithium from these mineral-rich deposits, miners must drill deep holes into the deposits and pump the brine out into large, shallow pools where the liquid will evaporate from the solids. After a few months, all that is left of the liquid brine are large deposits of its minerals, such as borax, manganese, potassium and, of course, lithium salts. From there, the mineral mixture is filtered and sent to another solar pool for a further 12 to 18 months.
At the end of this long, elaborate process, all that is left of the salty brine is the lithium salts, which can be processed back into their metallic form for commercial use.
Why is lithium mining under scrutiny?
Although lithium is an essential component in renewable energy technology and innovation, there are drawbacks to this cost-effective route to a sustainable future.
Lithium extraction requires a massive amount of water to pump and transport brine to the surface. Over half a million gallons of water are used for every metric ton of lithium mined; for the 100,000 tons of lithium mined in 2021 alone, that comes to around 50 billion gallons of water used for lithium mining alone in 2021. Lithium pumping in Salar de Atacama in Chile has used 65% of the region’s supply of fresh water, leading to increased drought that has affected already-struggling farms and communities in the area.
Toxic chemicals used to filter and separate lithium from other sediments in the evaporated brine also pose a great risk to water sources around lithium farms. If these chemicals reach the evaporation pools or the water table, then entire regions can become polluted with chemicals like hydrochloric acid, which kill fish and animals up to 150 miles away from lithium processing plants. Not to mention, there are also emissions related to the transportation of the lithium salts to a lithium processing plant, and so on and so forth.
There is no energy source on Earth that can avoid an environmental impact of some sort. Fossil fuels impact the environment through their emissions, hydropower impacts the environment through dams and flooding, and wind power impacts the environment by threatening wildlife habitats.
Lithium extraction has its own laundry list of costs and environmental impacts besmirching its role in the green energy sphere. And while it may seem like there is nothing we can do to stop the march of progress and industry in an ever-growing lithium industry, what we can do is advocate for more environmentally conscious practices and consumer awareness as we work to bring about a greener future.
Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/cebbi