My name is Tom Stafford, a resident of a town called Hebburn in the County of Tyne and Wear, England. I decided to compile this article as a result of reading an article in the Mail On Sunday newspaper, regarding the construction of giant lithium battery farms in the UK, written by columnist Amy Oliver, issued on July 11th 2021.
For all my working life I was an Electrical Engineer for my local electricity supply company. I have no experience or knowledge of working with Lithium batteries on any grand scale but I was inspired by the Mail article to investigate the matter further. The following is a compilation of information obtained from web sites on the Internet, including www.theguardian.com, www.wired.co.uk, www.volkswagenag.com, www.google.com. and www.bbc.com. Most of it written by persons eminent in their field whose work I greatly acknowledge.
IS LITHIUM THE ANSWER?
How much lithium does the world need?
The global market for the alkali metal lithium is growing rapidly. Between 2008 and 2018 alone, annual production in the major producing countries rose from 25,400 to 85,000 tons. An important growth driver is its use in the batteries of electric vehicles. However, lithium is also used in the batteries of laptops and cell phones, as well as in the glass and ceramics industry.
Lithium batteries are in great demand for simple items such as mobile phones, key fobs, power tools, garden tools, toys, torches, bicycles, scooters and other ephemera and of course a great number of people relate the use of lithium to cars only. Demand will increase as large solar power installations require storage facilities. Most domestic solar installations currently do not have storage but new sites are being offered with the provision for battery storage, again an increase in demand for lithium.
However a great demand has been created for lithium batteries of enormous magnitude being commissioned around the world and this country by National Grid and Electricity supply companies as storage batteries to store electricity from renewables, for when the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine. Around 400 sites throughout the country are operational or are in development. These are enormous and require constant climatic control otherwise they could become unstable and explode/catch fire, with great cost to the environment. Such installations could become a potential time bomb. When batteries catch fire you cannot just squirt water on them to extinguish the fire. The issues arise when these batteries made of Lithium ions overheat. South Korea saw twenty-three battery farm fires in just two years. A fire in Illinois burned for three days, such blazes release highly toxic gases. One- Hydrogen fluoride is lethal if inhaled and causes irreversible health effects after an hour of exposure according to Public Health, England. The resulting atmospheric pollution from these incidents is much more of a threat to health.
Has anyone considered how a car battery will behave in the event of a serious collision?
Where is lithium available from?
With 8 million tons, Chile has the world’s largest known lithium reserves. This puts the South American country ahead of Australia (2.7 million tons), Argentina (2 million tons) and China (1 million tons). Within Europe, Portugal has smaller quantities of the valuable raw material. The total global reserves are estimated at 14 million tons. This corresponds to 165 times the production volume in 2018.
Where is the most lithium mined?
With 51,000 tons, Australia was by far the most important supplier of lithium in 2018 – ahead of Chile (16,000 tons), China (8,000 tons) and Argentina (6,200 tons). This is shown by figures from the USGS (United States Geological Survey). The four countries mentioned have long dominated the picture, with Australia only gaining a clear lead over Chile in recent years.
How do the mining methods differ?
Put simply, lithium from Australia comes from ore mining, while in Chile and Argentina lithium comes from salt deserts, so-called salars. The extraction of raw materials from salars functions as follows: lithium containing saltwater from underground lakes is brought to the surface and evaporates in large basins.
The remaining saline solution is further processed in several stages until the lithium is suitable for use in batteries.
Why is lithium mining under criticism?
There are always critical reports on the extraction of lithium from salars: In some areas, locals complain about increasing droughts, which for example threatens livestock farming or leads to vegetation drying out. From the point of view of experts, it is still unclear to what extent the drought is actually related to lithium mining. It is undisputed that no drinking water is needed for the lithium production itself. What is disputed, on the other hand, is the extent to which the extraction of saltwater leads to an influx of fresh water and thus influences the groundwater at the edge of the salars. In order to assess this, the underground water flows in the Atacama Desert in Chile, for example, have not yet been sufficiently researched. In addition to lithium mining, possible influencing factors include copper mining, tourism, agriculture and climate change.
How does Volkswagen obtain lithium?
Volkswagen is working very closely with battery suppliers to ensure the use of sustainably mined lithium in the supply chain. Last year, Volkswagen concluded an initial Memorandum of Understanding with the Chinese lithium supplier Ganfeng. Ganfeng obtains the raw material from several mines in Australia, among others. Lithium from Chile is also used in Volkswagen’s electric models.
How does Volkswagen confront the criticism regarding lithium mining?
Volkswagen is currently collecting facts in order to gain its own impression of the water supply in the Atacama Desert in Chile with the support of independent experts. As a matter of principle, all Volkswagen suppliers are contractually obliged to adhere to high environmental and social standards. This also applies to suppliers of lithium. The aim is to ensure a sustainable supply of all raw materials. To this end, Volkswagen is also involved in initiatives such as the Responsible Minerals Initiative and the World Economic Forum’s Global Battery Alliance.
What are the long-term prospects for lithium demand?
The raw material remains important in the long term – says, for example, Nobel Prize winner M. Stanley Wittingham, who once laid the scientific foundations for the batteries used today. “It will be lithium for the next 10 to 20 years.” At the same time, the number of electric cars can be expected to rise sharply – in the interests of climate protection. The Volkswagen Group alone plans to put some 26 million pure electric vehicles on the road by 2029. In the long term, a large proportion of the raw materials used will be recycled – this would reduce the need for “new” lithium. However, this is unlikely to make itself felt until 2030, when used batteries will be returned in large quantities.
Lithium is crucial for the transition to renewables, but mining it has been environmentally costly. Now a more sustainable source of lithium has been found deep beneath our feet.
Cornwall, England1864. A hot spring is discovered nearly 450m (1,485ft) below ground in the Wheal Clifford, a copper mine just outside the mining town of Redruth. Glass bottles are immersed to their necks in its bubbling waters, carefully sealed and sent off for testing. The result is the discovery of so great a quantity of lithium – eight or 10 times as much per gallon as had been found in any hot spring previously analysed – that scientists suspect “it may prove of great commercial value”. But 19th-Century England had little need for the element, and this 50C (122F) lithium-rich water continued steaming away in the dark for more than 150 years.
Fast forward to autumn 2020, and a site nearby the Wheal Clifford in Cornwall has been confirmed as having some of the world’s highest grades of lithium in geothermal waters. The commercial use for lithium in the 21st Century could not be clearer. It is found not only inside smart phones and laptops, but is now vital to the clean energy transition, for the batteries that power electric vehicles and store energy so renewable power can be released steadily and reliably.
Demand has soared in recent years as carmakers move toward battery powered electric vehicles, as many countries including the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Norway and Canada announce a phase-out of combustion-engine cars. In fact, five times more lithium than is mined currently is going to be necessary to meet global climate targets by 2050, according to the World Bank.
But there’s one big problem. Obtaining lithium by conventional means takes its own environmental toll, or rather three: carbon emissions, water and land.
Lithium is currently sourced mainly from hard rock mines, such as those in Australia, or underground brine reservoirs below the surface of dried lakebeds, mostly in Chile and Argentina. Hard rock mining – where the mineral is extracted from open pit mines and then roasted using fossil fuels – leaves scars in the landscape, requires a large amount of water and releases 15 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of lithium, according to an analysis by the raw materials experts Minviro for the lithium and geothermal energy firm Vulcan Energy Resources. The other conventional option, extracting lithium from underground reservoirs, relies on even more water to extract the lithium – and it takes place in typically very water-scarce parts of the world, leading to indigenous communities questioning their sustainability.
Extracting lithium from geothermal waters – found not just in Cornwall, but Germany and the US as well – has a tiny environmental footprint in comparison, including very low carbon emissions.
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.
But there’s a problem. As the world scrambles to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, the environmental impact of finding all the lithium required to enable that transformation could become a serious issue in its own right. “One of the biggest environmental problems caused by our endless hunger for the latest and smartest devices is a growing mineral crisis, particularly those needed to make our batteries,” says Christina Valimaki an analyst at Elsevier.
In South America, the biggest problem is water. The continent’s Lithium Triangle, which covers parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, holds more than half the world’s supply of the metal beneath its otherworldly salt flats. It’s also one of the driest places on earth. That’s a real issue, because to extract lithium, miners start by drilling a hole in the salt flats and pumping salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface.
Then they leave it to evaporate for months at a time, first creating a mixture of manganese, potassium, borax and lithium salts which is then filtered and placed into another evaporation pool, and so on.
After between 12 and 18 months, the mixture has been filtered enough that lithium carbonate – white gold – can be extracted.
It’s a relatively cheap and effective process, but it uses a lot of water – approximately 500,000 gallons per tonne of lithium. In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65 per cent of the region’s water. That is having a big impact on local farmers – who grow quinoa and herd llamas – in an area where some communities already have to get water driven in from elsewhere.
There’s also the potential – as occurred in Tibet – for toxic chemicals to leak from the evaporation pools into the water supply. These include chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, which are used in the processing of lithium into a form that can be sold, as well as those waste products that are filtered out of the brine at each stage. In Australia and North America, lithium is mined from rock using more traditional methods, but still requires the use of chemicals in order to extract it in a useful form. Research in Nevada found impacts on fish as far as 150 miles downstream from a lithium processing operation.
According to a report by Friends of the Earth, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and causes air contamination. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, locals claim that lithium operations have contaminated streams used by humans and livestock, and for crop irrigation. In Chile, there have been clashes between mining companies and local communities, who say that lithium mining is leaving the landscape marred by mountains of discarded salt and canals filled with contaminated water with an unnatural blue hue.
“Like any mining process, it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth and the local wells,” said Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert from the University of Chile, in a 2009 interview. “This isn’t a green solution – it’s not a solution at all.”
But lithium may not be the most problematic ingredient of modern rechargeable batteries. It is relatively abundant, and could in theory be generated from seawater in future, albeit through a very energy-intensive process.
Our mission to create cleaner living using natural resources could itself cause widespread environmental harm, scientists now warn.
The battle to stave off Earth’s looming climate crisis is driving engineers to develop hosts of new green technologies. Wind and Solar plants are set to replace coal and gas power stations, while electric cars oust petrol and diesel vehicles from our roads. Slowly our dependence on fossil fuels is set to diminish and so ease global warming.
But scientists warn there will be an environmental price to pay for this drive to create a world powered by green technology. Prospecting for the materials to construct these devices, then mining them, could have very serious ecological consequences and major impacts on biodiversity, they say.
“The move towards net zero carbon emissions is going to create new stresses on our planet, at least in the short term,” said Prof Richard Herrington, head of earth sciences at the Natural History Museum, London. “We are going to have to learn how to consider profit and loss with regard to ecosystems just as we do now when we are considering economic issues.”
Metals such as lithium and cobalt provide examples of the awkward issues that lie ahead, said Herrington. Both elements are needed to make lightweight rechargeable batteries for electric cars and for storing power from wind and solar plants. Their production is likely to increase significantly over the next decade – and that could cause serious ecological problems.
In the case of cobalt, 60% of the world’s supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo where large numbers of unregulated mines use children as young as seven as miners. There they breathe in cobalt-laden dust that can cause fatal lung ailments while working tunnels that are liable to collapse.
“Men, women and children are working without even the most basic protective equipment such as gloves and face masks,” said Mark Dummett of Amnesty International, which has investigated the cobalt-mining crisis in DRC. “In one village we visited, people showed us how the water in the local stream that they drank was contaminated by the discharge of waste from a mineral processing plant.”
Then there is the issue of lithium mining. World production is set to soar over the next decade. Yet mining is linked to all sorts of environmental headaches. In the so-called Lithium Triangle of South America – made up of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia – vast quantities of water are pumped from underground sources to help extract lithium from ores, and this has been linked to the lowering of ground water levels and the spread of deserts. Similarly in Tibet, a toxic chemical leak from the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine poisoned the local Liqi river in 2016 and triggered widespread protests in the region.
Nor will these ecological problems be confined to specialist metals, analysts have pointed out. They say that rising demands for traditional materials such as cement – for building hydro-electric dams – or for copper, to provide cables to link wind and solar farms to cities and to build electric cars, could also cause widespread environmental damage unless care is taken.
Our growing appetite for copper provides a striking illustration of the issues. Thousands of tonnes are needed to create wind or solar power devices while electric vehicles use two or three times more copper than those powered by a diesel or petrol engine. As a result, the world’s appetite for copper is likely to jump by more than 300% by 2050, according to one recent report.
“You need tens of kilograms more copper for an electric car compared with one with a petrol engine,” said Herrington. “That means, if you want to turn all the UK’s 31m cars into electric vehicles you would require about 12% of the world’s entire copper output – just for Britain. That is an unrealistic demand, given that we are hoping to be making electric cars only within a decade.”
Harrington said it was inevitable that there would an expansion in mining and in providing energy for refining ores which, combined, would have real environmental impacts. “We are going to have to do that in a way that creates profits but also serves people and the planet.”
In addition to these issues, the proposed expansion of nuclear power in the UK – to satisfy demand no longer met by coal or gas plants – is likely to lead to the creation of increased amounts of nuclear waste. However, the UK still has no method for safely storing nuclear waste underground and relies on keeping highly radioactive remnants from power plant operations above ground. These stores may have to be expanded significantly in future.
One solution put forward to these green technology problems would be to limit the exploitation of resources on land and turn instead to the sea to gather the materials we need. Several promising marine sources have been pinpointed, with the most attention focusing on metnodules, which litter some parts of the ocean floor. These potato-sized globs of mineral are rich in copper, cobalt, manganese and other metals. According to the International Seabed Authority, some deposits contain millions of tonnes of cobalt, copper and manganese
As a result, several organisations are now surveying the most promising of these deposits, in particular the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in international waters in the Pacific Ocean. These could be hoovered up using robot submersibles that would criss-cross the 4.5m sq km that make up the zone.
However, recent research by marine scientists have also revealed that despite the Clarion-Clipperton Zone’s depth – it lies between 4,000 and 5,500 metres below the surface – the ocean floor there is also rich is sea-life. One survey, in 2017, found more than 30 species new to science living on the zone’s abyssal plain, most of them xenophyophores – considered the world’s largest living single-celled organisms.
Hoovering up the nodules could devastate these life forms, marine scientists have warned. “At present, we still don’t have enough data about the sea floor to be sure what the impact would be of mining there,” said Adrian Glover, a deep-sea ecology researcher at the Natural History Museum.
“However, when we do, it’s going to be a big question for society. If these are environments rich in biodiversity that could be easily damaged, will it be better or worse to exploit them compared with exploiting our rainforests on land? That could be a very difficult issue to resolve.”
Battery fears stall vehicles
A recent newspaper article revealed that a Lithium shortage could slow the rollout of electric cars. Demand for the key component of batteries could triple by 2025 with four new mines needed annually. But each mine can take seven years to get into production.
Chris Berry, at US based metals advisory firm House Mountain Partners, warned “The dramatic pace of UK electric vehicle sales growth runs the risk of slowing without a clear pathway to additional supply of Lithium and associated metals”
Cost puts brake on car switch
A third of motorists are put off by the higher costs of buying an electric car, a study found.
It would take a decade to recoup the £9,395 difference between the Mini EV and the cheaper Mini One from tax breaks and lower fuel and servicing costs.
WHICH? Also found, Lisa Barber, of the consumer group, said motorists “want to make more sustainable choices and are open to switching to electric vehicles, but more support is needed to ensure they can feasibly make the decision to buy an electric car”
It seems that the move towards storage solutions and/or electrification of cars or any other vehicle with lithium batteries requires serious thought.
It is fair to say that an electrically driven vehicle whilst at the moment are cheap to run, in comparison to those petrol or diesel driven, reducing the demand for fossil fuels and hence reduced air pollution from that source. The forgoing paragraphs suggest that, whilst solving one problem, a great deal of damage to the world environment would result. Could it be be possible that scientists, in the intervening years before 2030, could be able to make the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles much cleaner than today or increase the development of Hydrogen powered vehicles? A pipe dream? Maybe.
It may be unrealistic to assume that, in view of what has been written above and countless other sources production of electric cars only may not be achieved by the year 2030.
Establishing a vast network of charging points will very likely cost several millions of Great British Pounds will also take years to achieve.
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