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How “Green” is Lithium?

The market for battery electric and hybrid vehicles is growing slowly but steadily – from 0.4% in 2012 to 0.6% in 2013 and 0.7% in 2014 (year-to-date) in the United States alone.

Consumers buy these vehicles despite lower gas prices out of a growing conscience and concern for the environment. With this strong attraction to alternative energy, grows the demand for lithium, which is predominantly mined and imported from countries like Bolivia, Chile, China and Argentina.

Within the U.S., only Nevada, future home of Tesla’s new “Gigafactory” for batteries, produces lithium. However, the overall ecological impact of lithium ion batteries remains somewhat unclear, as does the “well-to-wheel” effort and cost to recharge such batteries.

To fully grasp the relevance and environmental impact of lithium it is important to note that lithium ion batteries are also found in most mobile phones, laptop computers, wearable electronics and almost anything else powered by rechargeable batteries.

Dozens of reports are available on the ecological impact of lithium mining. Unfortunately, many of them are influenced by the perspective of the organizations or authors releasing them. Reducing the available information to studies carried out by government bodies and research institutes around the world, a picture emerges nonetheless:

  • Elemental lithium is flammable and very reactive. In nature, lithium occurs in compounded forms such as lithium carbonate requiring chemical processing to be made usable.
  • Lithium is typically found in salt flats in areas where water is scarce. The mining process of lithium uses large amounts of water. Therefore, on top of water contamination as a result of its use, depletion or transportation costs are issues to be dealt with. Depletion results in less available water for local populations, flora and fauna.
  • Toxic chemicals are used for leaching purposes, chemicals requiring waste treatment. There are widespread concerns of improper handling and spills, like in other mining operations around the world.
  • The recovery rate of lithium ion batteries, even in first world countries, is in the single digit percent range. Most batteries end up in landfill.
  • In a 2013 report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) points out that nickel and cobalt, both also used in the production of lithium ion batteries, represent significant additional environmental risks.

A 2012 study titled “Science for Environment Policy” published by the European Union compares lithium ion batteries to other types of batteries available (lead-acid, nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal-hydride and sodium sulphur). It concludes that lithium ion batteries have the largest impact on metal depletion, suggesting that recycling is complicated. Lithium ion batteries are also, together with nickel-metal-hydride batteries, the most energy consuming technologies using the equivalent of 1.6kg of oil per kg of battery produced. They also ranked the worst in greenhouse gas emissions with up to 12.5kg of CO2 equivalent emitted per kg of battery. The authors do point out that “…for a full understanding of life cycle impacts, further aspects of battery use need to be considered, such as length of usage, performance at different temperatures, and ability to discharge quickly.”

Technology will of course improve, lithium supplies will be sufficient for the foreseeable future, and recycling rates will climb. Other issues like the migration of aging cars and electronic devices to countries with less developed infrastructures will, however, remain. As will the reality of lithium mining and processing. It is therefore conceivable that new battery technologies (sea water batteries or the nano-flowcell, for instance) will gain more importance in years to come, as will hydrogen fuel cells.

We will report about the pros and cons of each of these alternatives in future issues of Tech Metals Insider.

Bodo Albrecht,
tminsider@eniqma.com

 

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect those of Kitco Metals Inc. The author has made every effort to ensure accuracy of information provided; however, neither Kitco Metals Inc. nor the author can guarantee such accuracy. This article is strictly for informational purposes only. It is not a solicitation to make any exchange in precious metal products, commodities, securities or other financial instruments. Kitco Metals Inc. and the author of this article do not accept culpability for losses and/ or damages arising from the use of this publication.
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