Environmental concerns about lithium

Environmental concerns about lithium

Our friends’ daughter, a staunch environmentalist, reports from her college that mining lithium (and presumably cobalt and other materials) for electric vehicle batteries is “raping” third world countries of their limited resources, putting traditional farming out of business, and leaving a toxic wasteland behind. When it is depleted, these countries will be SOL, and there won’t be any lithium left for people who need it to treat their depression. For these reasons she is furious about Tesla and wants her parents to promise never to buy an EV.

Lots to unpack, but I thought I would ask the forums for help here. | 30 June 2019

While I disagree with just about everything she says, what about the rape of the USA for coal and oil with strip mines and fracking? So she's happy to destroy the USA and supports endless wars in the middle east, just so she can drive around in a gas car? Obviously she has no concern about the environment either, from all the pollution gas and diesel cars send into the air and dripping into the land. And ICE cars use all sorts of metals mined from all over the world, such as rhodium, palladium and of course, platinum used in every catalytic converter.

Lithium comes from the Earth, but it doesn't require strip mining or blowing the tops off mountains like other resources do. In fact, according to Reuters, most of the lithium on Earth is in South America, specifically in the Andes Mountains that run through Chile, Argentina and lithium market newcomer, Bolivia. Lithium salt brines are pumped out and dried. I couldn't find any "toxic" wasteland or negative effects from lithium extraction. We also have massive supplies of Lithium and consumption should last far longer than oil and gas at the current rates of use.

The lithium used in batteries is also recycled at end of life. Tesla has a recycling process set up to extract the metals in a recycled battery as they are valuable. They don't just disappear.

Madatgascar | 30 June 2019

I do see some news about toxic chemicals leeching into a river and poisoning fish and yaks in a lithium mine in Tibet. There’s probably enough truth to some of these stories to get people worked up. The question is putting it in the right perspective, choosing the least harmful path, and making sure we learn from those mistakes. As TeslaTap points out, it just can’t be as bad as the status quo with ICEs.

Tesla-David | 30 June 2019

This is a complex question with no easy answers. This article provides insight into the growing environmental concerns related to lithium mining and makes it clear that we have some work to do to minimize impacts from the extraction of lithium. Tesla is helping by actively recycling all batteries, but depending on where the lithium is extracted, each process has its own environmental issues.

"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."

rxlawdude | 30 June 2019

But unlike petroleum, lithium can be recycled. | 30 June 2019

I'll also add a EV uses about 12% of the battery weight in Lithium. For a 1000 lb battery, that's 120 lbs of Lithium. That all that's needed for 300,000 miles of usage, and can fully be recycled.

Now compare that with a car that pollutes with gas. A car that gets a respectable 30 mpg, uses 10,000 gallons over 300,000 miles. At 6.3 lbs/gal, that's 63,000 lbs of gasoline. It will create about 200,000 lbs of CO2 (consuming quite a bit oxygen in the process). Of course there are many more pollutants and oils created by creating gasoline and running an ICE vehicle. The pollution is even worse for diesel.

So 120 lbs of recyclable Lithium or 63,000 lbs of gross polluting gasoline. Which makes more sense?

Madatgascar | 30 June 2019

@TeslaTap, I have heard Model S only uses 15 to 20 pounds of lithium.

I thought Tesla was getting a lot of its lithium from Nevada - is that not producing yet? | 30 June 2019

@Madatgascar - I think you're right on the 20 lbs or so, but I couldn't find anything to back that up. Generally it seems standard li-ion cells use 12% lithium, but Tesla likely has a different mix. I wanted to show the worst case I could verify. Compared with gas 120 vs 20 is in the noise :)

Not sure where they are getting the Lithium today - my guess is they have multiple suppliers, considering the battery volume they have. From what I can tell, the Nevada source is under development, but not yet producing anything. Nevada is thought to have 25% of the world's lithium.

David N | 30 June 2019

“reports from her college”
That sent up a red flag for me.

Tropopause | 30 June 2019

In addition to what's been stated here, maybe someday Tesla won't use Lithium in its battery chemistry. Wishing for Tesla to fail would ensure the fossil fuel industry will continue to kill us all.

For those who claim the status quo oil/gas industries aren't so dangerous, I like to ask them to take a couple of "hits" from an ICE tail-pipe and tell me if it's not poisonous. NOBODY will do it. Why? :P

kevin_rf | 30 June 2019

Of course if you look into the fracking industries losses, with $280 billion in losses it is the definition of a Ponzi scheme. Sure we have low prices now, at the cost of billions in investor money that they have no hope in ever realizing a return on.

And people call Elon PT Barnum.

Madatgascar | 30 June 2019

After a bit of research, I have a few things to add.

Lithium is extracted in two ways - evaporations from brine pools (typically used in South America), and separating it from metallic ores (more common in Australia and some of China’s sources). The latter uses heat and chemicals and mining processes that cause more environmental harm. The lithium in Nevada seems to be in clay, not sure about environmental impact of extraction.

The impact of lithium extraction in South America is mostly its massive use of water. Water is diverted from other uses, like feeding llamas and growing quinoa. This is covered in the article Tesla-David links above. Some chemicals are added to the water, and this was probably mismanaged in Tibet. Overall the extraction process seems pretty benign compared to other processes.

The “raping” third world economies allegation doesn’t stand up. Chile is a second world country and has negotiated (a) the royalties it has sought, and (b) the right to keep 25% of the material in the country for more profitable refinement.

Cobalt, used in EV battery electrodes, is the no-no metal. 85% of it comes from the Congo. Amnesty International called out some battery manufacturers and EV makers for supporting warlords and child labor in Congolese cobalt mines. They did not include Tesla because Tesla sources cobalt from the Philippines. Tesla is also looking to revive cobalt production in Cobalt, Canada, and it’s working to reduce the use of cobalt to trace amounts.

Nickel is another electrode metal that seems to have the normal mining concerns and is more broadly available. | 1 July 2019

Interesting article in today's Mercury News on Lithium mining in South America. Does appear to be using a lot of water in the process, but seem Copper processing in the same area is using far more. There appears to be work being done to reduce the water use, which is weakly regulated by those countries.

And while a different area/issue, fracking uses dramatically more water that is mixed with toxic chemicals. Average is 5.1 million gallons of water per well. That water is never usable again and is pumped hopefully below water tables. At least the water used in Lithium processes evaporates and returns to the air.

rxlawdude | 1 July 2019

"That water is never usable again and is pumped hopefully below water tables."

Except nature finds a way - that contaminated fracking waste WILL reach drinking water.

Water rights will become the next resource to eventually owned by corporations.