Lithium, a commodity of the green economy
In this green economy era, lithium has become the symbol of a new consumption paradigm, more ecofriendly and less impactful for the environment. This commodity had given promises to propel humanity towards a zero-carbon society, allowing us to replace our highly polluting cars by non-emitting electric vehicles (EVs). Although the idea sounds appealing on paper, the reality is far from being a fairy tale. Thanks to a thriving demand for lithium-ion batteries – which power our laptops, cellphones, EVs, and other electronic devices – our appetite for lithium mining is just growing equally. Without any sign showing a decline in the near future, chances are good that our consumption will continue its progression.
While electrifying our economy is a genuine strategy to fight climate change, it is impossible to keep under silence the environmental impact of lithium. As these consequences are present all along the supply chain, from extraction to batteries end-of-life, mining processes are especially harmful. Strategies to attenuate the environmental impact of lithium extraction are thus emerging. To see the most promising ones, let’s deep dive in these new technological approaches that could have important ramifications in the future.
Recycling batteries to reduce lithium extraction in the future
As counter-intuitive as it can appear, recycling lithium-ion batteries could have positive outcomes on lithium extraction. In fact, to simply reuse batteries that have already been processed could reduce the environmental burden caused by lithium mining. Indeed, every battery reused and reprocessed into a new one prevents from extracting additional sources of lithium that would have created a risk for the environment in terms of potential chemical leaking, biodiversity depletion and water scarcity. Moreover, to increase the recycling rate of lithium batteries would reduce mining activities and thus engendered energy savings from fossil and nuclear sources. The energy used to extract new minerals would not have to be produced now.
Recycling lithium-ion batteries has also positive impacts on the other end of the supply chain, whereas it avoids tons of lithium to be disposed of in landfills, which is harmful in terms of soil contamination. As it contributes to the economy as well, new recycling sectors are expected to thrive in the next years to address this issue, in countries like Canada and Australia. Furthermore, science is put into contribution to develop cutting-edge techniques that would facilitate battery recycling. Thus, robotics technology to safely dismantle and remove lithium-ion batteries from EVs is being studied. Other alternatives such as biological recycling are tested too, using bacteria to process the metal in batteries. Additionally, renewable energy sources should be further used on extraction sites to reduce the carbon footprint of lithium mining. Paradoxically, renewables such as wind and solar energy also use rare minerals that can be hardly accessible. To reduce extraction is thus ultimately the best solution.
Developing extraction techniques that reduce the uses of water and chemicals
Another solution to attenuate the environmental consequences of lithium extraction is to develop technologies that diminish the uses of water and chemicals during the mining processes. An interesting example of such technique comes from the UK, where a company called Cornish Lithium is creating a solution that would allow to extract lithium from brines without using any chemical produce nor wasting water in the process by using a geothermal technique. If adapted to the context, this technical process would be especially useful for countries located in the lithium triangle (Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia), where the mineral is extracted from brine sources. While being developed in Europe, the technology is much needed in South America. Though to facilitate the adoption of similar techniques in this region, further collaboration on technology transfer and R&D should be put forward.
Creating alternatives to lithium-ion batteries
Whereas recycling strategies and new extraction techniques are being developed, alternatives to lithium-ion batteries are at least as important. Indeed, as we have seen, these last solutions are not deprived of any negative externalities on the environment, thus requiring the creation of other technologies that will substitute lithium in the near future. One potential alternative has been recently brought by IBM. The company’s research laboratory released that it was developing a battery that could replace the traditional lithium-ion batteries in our electronic devices and EVs. This new battery is made with marine minerals, thus greatly reducing the environmental impact of the device by changing the use of heavy metals like cobalt with the minerals extracted from seawater. While this innovation does not cancel the use of lithium in battery production, it highlights the fact that technological advancements will possibly make a difference in the future and reduce the environmental consequences of the lithium industry. Overall, these new strategies require collaboration between stakeholders in the lithium supply chain. Governments and companies need to exchange technologies and practices to make recycling and technical solutions more accessible and scalable in areas where it is much needed.
Author: Olivier Flamand-Lapointe
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