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The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction

The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction

As the world scrambles to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, the environmental impact of finding all the lithium required could become a major issue in its own right

By: Amit Katwala, Sunday 5 August 2018

Here’s a thoroughly modern riddle: what links the battery in your smartphone with a dead yak floating down a Tibetan river? The answer is lithium – the reactive alkali metal that powers our phones, tablets, laptops and electric cars.

In May 2016, hundreds of protestors threw dead fish onto the streets of Tagong, a town on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. They had plucked them from the waters of the Liqi river, where a toxic chemical leak from the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine had wreaked havoc with the local ecosystem.

There are pictures of masses of dead fish on the surface of the stream. Some eyewitnesses reported seeing cow and yak carcasses floating downstream, dead from drinking contaminated water. It was the third such incident in the space of seven years in an area which has seen a sharp rise in mining activity, including operations run by BYD, the world’ biggest supplier of lithium-ion batteries for smartphones and electric cars. After the second incident, in 2013, officials closed the mine, but when it reopened in April 2016, the fish started dying again.

Lithium-ion batteries are a crucial component of efforts to clean up the planet. The battery of a Tesla Model S has about 12 kilograms of lithium in it, while grid storage solutions that will help balance renewable energy would need much more.

Demand for lithium is increasing exponentially, and it doubled in price between 2016 and 2018. According to consultancy Cairn Energy Research Advisors, the lithium ion industry is expected to grow from 100 gigawatt hours (GWh) of annual production in 2017, to almost 800 GWhs in 2027.

William Adams, head of research at Metal Bulletin, says the current spike in demand can be traced back to 2015, when the Chinese government announced a huge push towards electric vehicles in its 13th Five Year Plan. That has led to a massive rise in the number of projects to extract lithium, and there are “hundreds more in the pipeline,” says Adams.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 9, 2019 8:17 pm GMT

Noam, this has nothing to do with lithium or electric cars.  There's plenty of lithium in the Earth's crust

"An oversupply of lithium this year has nearly halved prices this year in China, halting an unprecedented run for the key component for batteries used in electric vehicles."

and like any mining operation, lithium extraction has to be done responsibly to avoid environmental impacts.

Remember Deepwater Horizon?

William Hughes-Games's picture
William Hughes-Games on Dec 9, 2019 6:51 pm GMT

Surly the engineers can work out systems so that Li refineries do not pollute the environment.  Sounds like someone is doing it on the cheap.  A further source of Li should be spent batteries.  Surly a mountain of spent batteries are a richer 'ore' than any mineral source of Li.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 9, 2019 10:05 pm GMT

Agreed-- it's not inherent to the technology that pollution occurs, it's just that the right processes need to be developed and implemented

Noam Mayraz's picture
Noam Mayraz on Dec 10, 2019 10:40 pm GMT

Matt, William Hughes-Games and Bob Meinetz yes, of course, we always improve the process to be more efficient and cleaner.  Mankind is only at the beginning dealing with improved battery technologies and process.

Also see about my neighbor, Tom Edison's efforts - I had no clue how deep was his involvement with batteries before he gave up.

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