The Paradox of Lithium

The Paradox of Lithium

Marco Tedesco
|January 18, 2023

lithium mine in france

Mining for lithium — a vital aspect to energy the clear power transition — can have adverse impacts on the setting. Photograph: TomTooM03 

The race towards net-zero emissions relies upon closely on lithium — to energy electrical automobiles, to retailer wind and solar energy.

This aspect of the periodic desk is without doubt one of the most important protagonists of the financial and infrastructural transformation that we’re experiencing in the present day. Our dependence on lithium remembers that of oil and coal that remodeled our society previously. On the time, nevertheless, the long-term results of burning fossil fuels had been unknown, whereas in the present day, we all know of the extremely adverse elements of lithium extraction on the setting.

With this information ought to come duty — in the direction of the setting and future generations. We should not fall into the identical traps from which we are attempting to free ourselves.

Along with the highly effective “healing” and “palliative” qualities of lithium on the consequences of climate change, it’s needed to think about the potential “unwanted effects” and talk them in clear method. These unwanted effects embody: use of huge portions of water and associated air pollution; potential improve in carbon dioxide emissions; manufacturing of huge portions of mineral waste; elevated respiratory issues; alteration of the hydrological cycle.

Clearly the financial pursuits at stake are monumental. Australia, Chile and China produce 90% of the world’s lithium. The worldwide lithium market quickly approaching $8 billion.

A paradox, due to this fact, can come up between “clear” revolution and “soiled” lithium mines: it’s true that electrifying automobiles and different elements of our society favors the discount of carbon dioxide emissions. Nonetheless, after we take into account the price of emissions related to extracting lithium, the transition might not be as environment friendly as we imagine, particularly when miners aren’t utilizing clear power.

Allow us to take into account, for instance, electrical automobiles. To offer an concept of this impact, producing a battery weighing 1,100 kilos emits over 70% extra carbon dioxide than producing a standard automobile in Germany, in line with analysis by the automotive consultancy Berylls Technique Advisors.

Moreover, lithium mining requires numerous water. To extract one ton of lithium requires about 500,000 liters of water, and can lead to the poisoning of reservoirs and associated well being issues.

What to do, then? To start with, we must always spend money on various options to lithium batteries. On the similar time, recycling and growing the lifetime of those batteries would scale back the necessity to mine big portions of the dear materials. This effort needs to be accompanied by launching lithium mining operations with strict environmental legal guidelines and laws, and investing in superior mining strategies able to extracting lithium from seawater.

Remediating and lowering the affect of lithium mining is important to have the ability to name the steps we’re taking in the direction of a brand new world “progress.” In any other case, we’re simply moving into circles.

Marco Tedesco is a analysis professor at Columbia Local weather Faculty’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

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