Teague Egan is the founder and CEO of EnergyX. He is responsible for all aspects of the company’s transformation into a global leader in renewable energy technologies. Based in the United States, Egan has been investing in public sector energy assets and sustainable technologies for many years and here gives us his perspective on the sustainability of lithium mining.
The global push for green energy and low-carbon transportation solutions has led to a skyrocketing demand for lithium in recent years.
Lithium is the main element of rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles, as well as global energy storage, and leads us to a world less dependent on intermittency renewable energies. Battery material prices have risen along with demand, increasing pressure on the lithium industry to increase yields.
However, there is an urgent need to address the lithium mining process and make it more sustainable. There are currently two main ways of acquiring lithium: extraction from ore and extraction from aqueous brine.
What are the problems with lithium mining?
Extracting the spodumene source for lithium is an intensive process requiring heavy machinery, toxic chemicals and large amounts of water. This process has a direct effect on the local environment as it requires the removal of soil and the creation of tailings dams for contaminated waters.
And even worse, as illustrated by the failures of Ganzizhou Rongda lithium mine in Tibet, the cost of an on-site breakdown can wreak havoc on the local ecology. The risks associated with mining the ore played a role in the Serbian government revocation of Rio Tinto’s lithium mine license in January, following protests across the country.
The second method of lithium mining, brine mining, is less geologically intensive, but generally requires even greater amounts of water to pump lithium brine from underground to the surface. , where it is contained in ponds the size of New York City, using chemicals to help evaporate the water and collect lithium.
Current extraction methods are time consuming and inefficient – up to 70% of the lithium in brines is lost using this process. Additionally, chemical seepage into groundwater and reduced water availability have become synonymous with these operations, seen in the Salar de Atacama.
Putting global lithium demand into context
The average electric vehicle (EV) needs almost 63 kilos of lithium carbonate for its battery components. Considering that there were 5.6 million electric vehicles on the road worldwide in 2020 and 145 million expected by 2030, lithium supply becomes a major issue – even without considering the systems energy storage necessary for renewable energies.
At the United Nations climate conference, COP26world governments have made several commitments on zero emissions goals, reducing environmental damage and creating a low-carbon economy capable of mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis.
Lithium mining methods are simply not sustainable in their current forms, especially considering the local socio-economic impacts that mining can have on local communities.
Implementing sustainable low-carbon solutions should not come at the expense of the environment elsewhere. In order to create a better future, we must focus on providing sustainable alternatives to current problems.
But how does it work with lithium? The element is essential for the development of global net zero plans and is set to become one of the most valuable resources over the next 10 years – the demand must be met!
What are sustainable lithium solutions?
The world is at a crossroads. Global governments want to move as quickly as possible to sustainable economic models without necessarily solving the issues around materials and supply chains that are essential to the transition.
Fortunately, there have been breakthroughs in the field of lithium that offer opportunities for sustainable development from the extraction process. Direct lithium extraction (DLE) has become the go-to brine technology in recent years as researchers seek to reduce the environmental pressure that brine extraction can have.
The technology is becoming widely available, with companies like EnergyX and Cornish Lithium showcasing the versatility of DLE technology and how it can replace current methods.
DLE is more time, cost and resource efficient while offering higher lithium yields – up to 90% of lithium recovered from brine instead of 30%. This technology has a much lower environmental footprint because it does not use chemicals, heavy equipment or large water consumption. Simply put, this is the future of mining – a future the industry can be proud of.
We must take advantage of modern technology
In order to reach the position in which we currently find ourselves, science, technology and engineering have made countless breakthroughs. Unfortunately, some of these breakthroughs have led to the climate emergency that we are actively trying to mitigate.
However, we cannot truly move towards a sustainable economic model without tackling fundamental environmental issues in industries crucial to the transition.
Technology will continue to make the advances necessary for the global community to pursue the greater good – and we must ensure that the solutions being developed are used.