Technology

Lithium batteries, a real green solution?

 By Amanda Saint

Lithium is the lightest metal on Earth and is currently used in batteries to power many modern conveniences, including mobile phones, laptops and electric cars…

(Cover pic: Silver Peak lithium mine, Nevada by Doc Searls, Flickr)

Lithium ion batteries are also being heralded as one of the best options to help countries, states and businesses meet renewable energy growth and greenhouse gas reduction goals. Although lithium ion batteries can store energy generated from the wind and sun to be used at a later date, and so can help with the gradual phase out of fossil fuels, the question has to be asked: what are the environmental and social impacts of obtaining lithium?

Lithium mining

A fact sheet published by Friends of the Earth (FOE) reveals that the process of obtaining lithium for batteries is having a detrimental effect on both the communities and the natural world where lithium extraction mines are located.
The current top providers of lithium are Australia, Chile and Argentina, which between them provided 23 million metric tons in 2016. Lithium in South America is found in the brine of salt flats and in order to extract it holes are drilled into the salt flats and the brine is pumped to the surface to form ponds. These are left to evaporate and the lithium carbonate is then extracted using chemicals.
This process means that the communities living near to the salt flats, which are typically found in very dry regions, are having their access to freshwater threatened. The threats come from two directions – water pollution from chemical runoff and water diversion to feed the mines.
Australia’s lithium mining typically sees the country exporting spodumene to processing plants in China, where the lithium is then extracted. As well as adding in all the environmental impacts that come from shipping the spodumene, the process of extracting lithium in this way is a lot more complex and involves a wide range of different hydrometallurgical steps. You can read more about the different extraction methods in detail here.

Spodumene (minerali.it)

So while the batteries can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in energy production and transport, the answer is not clear-cut about how green an option they are when you take into account their extraction and production impacts. Then there is the issue of recycling these batteries to address, too. But now that the role lithium can play in the electronics market has been well and truly established, demand for it is going to continue to grow rapidly.

Greener supply and demand

A report released by Markets and Markets in January 2017 predicts that the lithium ion battery market will grow at a CAGR of 16.6 percent between 2016 and 2022 to reach a value of approximately $69 million.
Much of this growth is going to come from already established markets – electric vehicles and consumer electronics. The number of electric cars in use grew from 746,000 in 2015 to 1.2 million in 2016. This number is expected to keep on growing quickly and with the use of electric cars on the rise many concerns are being raised about the eventual recycling of the lithium batteries that power them. Mobile phones and laptops are typically replaced every few years too so the lithium that’s being mined for their batteries is being used up quickly and typically not recycled.
The FOE fact sheet states that current levels of lithium recycling in the E.U. are very low. only around 5 percent, with most of the current lithium either being dumped in landfill, where it can leak toxic chemicals into the earth, or incinerated. So there has to be a push from the suppliers of raw lithium, the companies that use it in their products, and the consumers that purchase them, to make the whole process more sustainable.
The Markets and Markets report also shows that the lithium ion battery market is made up of companies that are manufacturing components; manufacturing and assembling cell, module and packs; system designers, and distributors. The main players involved in the development of lithium ion battery systems include BYD Co. Ltd. (China), LG Chem Ltd. (South Korea), Panasonic Corporation (Japan), Samsung SDI Co., Ltd. (South Korea), and BAK Group (China). These companies need to find ways to help and incentivize the companies and consumers that buy the end products to easily recycle the batteries they use. After all, the supply of lithium in the natural world is finite so consumption of it must be carefully managed.

READ MORE: Canadian miners and lithium by Andrew Burger

about the author
Amanda Saint
Journalist and content writer, specialised in engineering and technology with a focus on environmental sustainability, urbanisation and biotechnology.