Lithium's dirty secret
Mining it ruins not just the immediate environment surrounding it, but also the lives of the people, living nearby.
After the moronic and meaningless (without arguments) hate I've received for my previous EV-themed post (linked below), I thought you don't deserve my time and efforts to try and teach you something useful, so I've almost scrapped this particular article. And you really don't, but just to annoy the haters even more, here it is in all of its glory!
Conventional wisdom says it's as polluting as driving a fossil fuel powered vehicle, but is it true in reality?
Contrary to popular belief, we're not running out of lithium anytime soon. In fact, lithium is the 25th most abundant element on earth (out of 118). But there are two issues with that. The first is that while widely distributed, it's only found in trace amounts. The second is much like we've discussed before with hydrogen - it's never alone. Because lithium is very reactive in contact with the air, it is exclusively found bonded with something else, in order to remain stable. Most of the lithium on earth is found in sea water, but the extraction from there could be really painful, damaging and expensive. So we're currently digging the earth for it, because places of concentration contains as much as 20mg per kilogram of earth. To clarify, lithium does not occur naturally on our planet, so when eventually we'll run out of it, there's no way for the Earth to make more...
Still, why lithium?
Despite the heavy batteries in the current generation EVs, lithium is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element that exists! It's also ideal for batteries because of its high electrochemical potential, so serving as anode is lithium's second nature. And since it was found easy to adapt in already existing battery manufacturing process, it was the clear and logical choice. But as the demand from the automotive industry is growing, mining lithium is introducing one problem for the environment while trying to solve another.
Making huge holes
Strip mining works on such a scale that some mines can actually be seen from space and ISS astronauts have made some photographs of it. But scars on our planet are not the biggest issue by all means. The consequences from the destruction of ecosystems through removal of vegetation and dumping into streams (such as in mountaintop removal mining), problems with blasting damage and noise pollution, flooding, the extreme hazards of toxic wastes. Those were just some of the things that can affect us. But today's governments wants you to perceive lithium mining as green, since they talk about taking all the precautions. Let's be clear - green and mining cannot even be used in the same sentence, let alone together. There's no such thing as green mining, not even remotely. The one thing that's causing the real trouble and it will haunt us in the future is another kind of mining that uses prolific amounts of fresh water!
No clean drinkable water in parts of the world, but plenty for lithium mining...
Governments are hypocrites, that should be clear by now. With parts of the world lacking access to drinkable water, they cannot help, but when it comes to the precious lithium, they'll provide all the water in the world. It's truly shameful, but it's a fact.
In Covas do Barroso, Portugal, the biggest lithium mine in Europe consumes 2270 tonnes of fresh water for every tonne of lithium it digs out! That's 2.27 million litres! And they are extracting 200 000 tonnes of lithium per year, planning to run at least 15 years! So 454 billion litres of water per year gets mixed with various chemical acids, gets dumped into deep-dug wells and pumped back again with the dissolved lithium-carrying minerals. Some of it soaks into the ground, mixing with ground waters and contaminating drinking water sources. The rest is left in shallow pools to evaporate to expose the dissolved minerals, causing acid rains afterwards.
Is it worth it?
This is by far the toughest question that I had to answer in a written article. I don't have a definitive answer on that. I think we have to pick our fights. Right now, climate change is happening and this is what we're fighting. And while lithium mining is damaging for the environment and the people, living near those mines, we are the absolute masters of destroying that same environment with our rich arsenal of methods. Lithium mining is just one and so far a small part of this arsenal. But I have to mention again - it's not sustainable! There are things that have much bigger impact, but I can't stay silent when something is impacting human lives on a large scale. All major news agencies did a coverage on Covas do Barroso mine, so you can hear from the locals how their lives have been impacted by this lithium mine.
Covas do Barroso mining