The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction

Posted: August 5, 2018 by oldbrew in Energy, ideology, pollution
Tags: ,

Typical electric car set-up

As the worldwide ideological push to establish electric vehicles continues, all is not well in the world of lithium extraction and usage.

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, says Wired UK.

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.

Continued here.

  1. ivan says:

    Question: When is an environmental disaster not an environmental disaster?

    Answer: When it is the result of a green quest.

    If this green stupidity isn’t stopped quickly future generations will be cursing the ‘green dream’ for producing the stinking cesspit that is left of the Earth.

    Why won’t the church of climatology and their hangers on not think of the children?

  2. Ian W says:

    It is not only lithium. Cobalt has now become a cause celebre because of children being used in the mines in the Congo. so now there is a rush to stop mines using children

    Do a simple back of the envelope calculation – if by 2035 – all the cars in California and UK are meant to be electric (and there are many other countries now). How much lithium and cobalt would be required? What are the known recoverable reserves of these metals?
    Now add in the idea of power systems with backup batteries a la Elon Musk in Australia.
    And of course all the personal electronics that us Lithium Ion batteries.

    A new battery technology is needed or all these facile political initiatives will fail.

    [mod note] see:

  3. ivan says:

    I should have added that there isn’t one of their ‘renewable’ energy schemes that doesn’t leave a disaster behind it.

    Wind generators leave toxic wast from the production of the magnets. the towers, bases and blades are going to be toxic waste in the future and will never be cleaned up.

    Solar panels leave toxic wast behind in their manufacture and disposing of them is an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

    The sad thing the environmentalists haven’t woken up to this yet and most of them support the green dream.

  4. oldbrew says:

    Research in Nevada found impacts on fish as far as 150 miles downstream from a lithium processing operation.

    That won’t be headline news in Green-land.

    Research in Australia found that only two per cent of the country’s 3,300 tonnes of lithium-ion waste was recycled.

    And so it goes on.

  5. oldbrew says:

    MIT: The $2.5 trillion reason we can’t rely on batteries to clean up the grid

    Fluctuating solar and wind power require lots of energy storage, and lithium-ion batteries seem like the obvious choice—but they are far too expensive to play a major role.
    by James Temple July 27, 2018

    Building the level of renewable generation and storage necessary to reach the state’s goals would drive up costs exponentially, from $49 per megawatt-hour of generation at 50 percent to $1,612 at 100 percent.

    And that’s assuming lithium-ion batteries will cost roughly a third what they do now.
    – – –
    When will boneheaded greenies catch on?

  6. cognog2 says:

    How about flooding the Media with pictures of emaciated or dead Yaks to replace the Polar bears?
    Might get the eco warriors thinking a bit. – Or not. I suspect the yakety yak wil just continue unabated.(sorry about that!) (sarc.)

    Seriously: This is just another unintended consequence which politicians refuse to consider; but is obvious to anyone of intelligence.

  7. oldbrew says:

    cognog – the term ‘collateral damage’ springs to mind 😦

  8. pochas94 says:

    It’s not the lithium that’s the problem, is it? Or is it bad manufacturing practices that can be fixed?

  9. Graeme No.3 says:

    Unlike sodium and potassium Lithium is toxic in smallish amounts. The problem is (like the first 2) that it is quite soluble. Trying to remove a highly soluble metal from solution is difficult (read very expensive) so unlikely to happen without regulations, which would make the rush to battery storage impossibly expensive. (So expensive that even politicians and public servants would hesitate).

  10. Bitter@twisted says:

    Isn’t lithium used to treat some mental illness?
    Can’t be that toxic.
    Maybe it would help a lot if the greens used it more.

  11. oldbrew says:

    Possible recycling solution?…

    Old mining techniques make a new way to recycle lithium batteries
    Date: August 2, 2018
    Source: Michigan Technological University

    Using 100-year-old minerals processing methods, chemical engineering students have found a solution to a looming 21st-century problem: how to economically recycle lithium ion batteries.

  12. Graeme No.3 says:

    Bitter & twisted:
    Used to treat bipolar disorders. Becoming less popular as
    “Lithium is a medicine with a narrow range of safety. Significant poisoning can result when the amount of lithium taken is more than this range”.
    The usual dosage was around half the toxicity level. Can build up in the body if dosage isn’t carefully monitored.
    No known antidote.

  13. Patrick healy says:

    Graham and Bitter,
    Is not a belief in the green religion a type of bipolar disorder and herein lies the solution!

  14. oldbrew says:

    Musk tells di Caprio he needs a carbon tax to hang round the necks of the ‘fossil fuels industry’…


  15. A C Osborn says:

    It is not just Lithium and Cobalt, it is also Cadmium as well.
    Also found in Solar Panels.

  16. stpaulchuck says:

    the gawd awful pollution related to rare earth mining and processing is already a disaster but green religion acolytes are impervious to facts in evidence because they are “saving the planet” from imaginary damage from a trace gas
    “Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good” – Thomas Sowell

  17. oldbrew says:

    Expanding the limits of Li-ion batteries: Electrodes for all-solid-state batteries

    Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology have addressed one of the major disadvantages of all-solid-state batteries by developing batteries with a low resistance at their electrode/solid electrolyte interface. The fabricated batteries showed excellent electrochemical properties that greatly surpass those of traditional and ubiquitous Li-ion batteries; thereby, demonstrating the promise of all-solid-state battery technology and its potential to revolutionize portable electronics.
    – – –
    Toyota wants to use solid state batteries in its EVs within a few years.