Responsible lithium mining

The white gold rush for green lithium: can lithium production be done responsibly?

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Lithium has been hailed as ‘white gold’ for its versatility and value in today’s world. But what exactly is it? Well, lithium powers technology spanning from the computer you’re reading this on to lifesaving pacemakers. Basically, any portable electronic device contains lithium. Lightweight, powerful, and rechargeable, this metal’s value also lies in its role as an essential piece in the clean energy revolution. Lithium batteries’ high energy density and ability to be recharged make them uniquely suited to power the electric vehicles (EVs) and electric grids of the future. However, despite the metal’s importance in the clean energy revolution, it’s incredibly resource-intensive to extract and this process causes environmental distress, leading many to wonder: can we produce lithium responsibly? 

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Key takeaways

  • Lithium batteries are essential to the U.S.’s clean energy transition as they are used in both energy storage and EVs
  • Primary lithium mining techniques today include hard rock and brine extraction, which are both resource intensive, polluting and slow-moving
  • Exciting advancements in responsible lithium mining include geothermal extraction, solar evaporation, and lithium recycling 
  • Responsible lithium mining has the potential to reduce the environmental impact, expedite extraction, and lower lithium production costs, making lithium batteries more affordable and facilitating widespread adoption
  • Visit the EnergySage Marketplace to receive quotes for solar-plus-storage systems, or our EV showroom to compare EVs 

Why is lithium in such high demand? 

As nations and companies make progress towards their climate pledges by investing in energy storage and electrifying their cars, the demand for lithium has skyrocketed. The transition to a cleaner, greener future relies heavily on moving away from fossil fuels and towards the widespread production of technology powered by lithium. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates the demand for lithium to increase 40 times by 2040! The energy industry requires lithium for two main technologies:

Electric vehicles

President Biden has announced a goal to have 50 percent of new American cars be EVs electric by 2030: today, only one percent of U.S. cars are electric, yet the automotive industry accounts for 50 percent of the demand for lithium. For example, Tesla batteries require up to 25 pounds of lithium compound per unit – and Elon Musk isn’t alone in the EV market anymore! Huge companies like BMW, Ford, and Volkswagen have committed tens of billions of dollars towards expanding their electric fleet while GM, the king of American automakers, announced that they will transition their entire production line to EVs by 2035. Globally, the IEA predicts an 800 percent increase in the number of EVs over the next 10 years. 

If you’re considering purchasing an EV, check out some of our articles on EVs to help you in your decision process. 

Energy storage

Electric power markets in the U.S. are undergoing significant structural change as we shift towards renewable energy, which requires large- and small-scale lithium batteries to add resiliency and flexibility to the grid. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that between 2021 and 2023 the energy storage capacity in the US will increase 10,000 megawatts (MW) —10 times the full capacity in 2019. According to our latest Intel Report, the majority of homeowners are interested in solar-plus-storage for resiliency – a trend that will likely continue due to the increasing severity of storms. More and more homeowners and business owners are installing home storage systems, leading to increased demand. Importantly, most large-scale storage systems slated to come online in the U.S. over the next three years are to be built at power plants that also produce electricity from solar, allowing lithium batteries and solar to work hand in hand to maintain grid stability  

If you’re interested in energy storage for your home or business, be sure to check out some of our articles on energy storage to learn more. 

What are the current problems with lithium production?

Lithium is crucial to the clean energy transition – but it’s not a perfect solution at the moment. In fact, lithium production is facing a number of challenges, with the major two being supply chain constraints and environmental issues. 

Supply chain constraints

First of all, about 80 percent of all lithium in the world is sourced and processed in China. Strained international relations or unforseen events in this region could cut off the U.S.’s lithium supply. To prevent this, the U.S. has declared lithium an essential resource and has been exploring domestic alternatives which are concentrated in California and Nevada. As setting up lithium extraction sites is a slow process, the U.S. is relying heavily on metal from Australia and South America at the moment. However, with advances in responsible lithium mining techniques, supply chain issues could lessen in the near future, making lithium batteries more available and affordable. 

Environmental issues 

Some current lithium extraction mechanisms are detrimental to the environment: the process typically requires massive resources, which contribute to water, land, and air pollution. The two main forms of lithium mining today are open pit/hard rock mines and brine extraction sites. Open-pit mines are essentially large holes in the ground – aka, the image that typically comes to mind when you think ‘mine.’ These excavation sites release dangerous chemicals including arsenic into the surrounding groundwater and are incredibly resource-intensive, releasing 15,000 kilograms (kg) of carbon dioxide emissions per one ton of lithium extracted – not quite as environmentally friendly as we’d like to see! 

On the other hand, brine extraction operates by pumping lithium-rich water out from under hypersaline lakes and filtering the metal out. This method is even more water-intensive than the hard rock mine, and drains water out of already drought-plagued regions while polluting the local aquifers. Check out our article on why lithium mining is so controversial to learn more about the problems with current extraction processes.

What are some ways that lithium can be produced responsibly? 

Although current methods of lithium can be environmentally problematic, exciting new progress has been made towards green lithium processes! These projects will be necessary to ensure a steady supply of lithium for batteries, while keeping the environment safe. 

Geothermal extraction

An exciting new development in lithium sourcing is geothermal extraction, which is a significantly less expensive and resource-intensive method. Similar to brine extraction, geothermal extraction utilizes lithium-rich brine, but there is a key difference between this new method and traditional brine extraction: geothermal extraction takes advantage of geothermal energy. Geothermal energy is a type of renewable energy that comes from natural underground heat like hot springs. It naturally lifts lithium-rich water to the surface, which is then nano-filtered by specialized molecules that act as a chemical sieve to extract the precious metal and then the excess liquid is returned to the ground. 

Overall, with geothermal extraction, there is much less pumping or water use as the leftover water is injected back into the ground. Thus, not only does this process rely on renewable energy, as opposed to fossil fuels, it also requires less energy overall!. The table below explains how lithium mining through geothermal extraction compares to open-pit/hard rock mining and brine extraction, discussed above: 

 Open pit/hard rock miningBrine extractionGeothermal extraction
Emissions of carbon dioxide (per ton of lithium)15,500 kg5,000 kg0 kg
Use of water (per ton of lithium)170 m3
469 m33 m3
Use of land (per ton of lithium)464 m23,124 m21 m2

Note: data for this table was obtained from the consultancy Miniviro.

Geothermal extraction case studies: the Salton Sea and United Downs

One of the newest geothermal sites lies in the desert sands of California under the Salton Sea, a hypersaline lake that sits on underground volcanoes. Companies have already been monetizing this location by using the steam from the geothermal springs to produce electricity; the next step is to capture and filter the lithium out of condensed steam before sending it back into the ground. Backed by Berkshire Hathaway and some other big-name companies, this new site is touted to produce the most sustainable lithium in the world. In fact, the California Energy Commission has estimated that the field could provide 40 percent of global lithium demand and in their research published in March 2021, they forecast the area to produce over 600,000 tons of lithium a year, which could generate about $7.2 billion.

Similar to the Salton Sea Project, United Downs, located in Cornwall, UK, is a lithium project situated on a geothermal energy power plant. This location is particularly promising as the underground water is also ultra-low in magnesium and sodium – minerals that make it more tedious and costly to extract lithium. Another bonus of the Cornwall region is that it’s been a mining hotbed historically, so there is a wealth of data and resources regarding the area’s subsurface. The UK is hopeful that their domestic lithium extraction at United Downs will be able to power Britain through the transition to clean energy.  

Solar evaporation

Existing methods for lithium extraction from brine involve solar evaporation from salt flats — a process that can take several months or even years. However, a group of scientists from the U.S. and Australia made exciting new advancements in lithium extraction technology through solar evaporation that could shorten this process to days or even hours. So far the lithium recovery rate with this new technique is around 90 percent: much more effective than the 30 percent rate from the traditional solar evaporation process. 

In addition, lithium ponds use tens of thousands of gallons of fresh water per ton, while the new technology doesn’t use freshwater – potentially saving resources in lithium brine-rich and drought-prone areas like Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. This method could cut the lithium extraction timeline from months to hours, increasing supply and thus reducing production costs of the most important component of lithium batteries. As production costs fall, the price of lithium-ion batteries would drop as well, lowering barriers to widespread adoption of energy storage and EVs.

Recycling lithium

An alternative to mining virgin lithium is just re-using the lithium we already have. Like aluminum cans and alkaline batteries, used lithium batteries can be processed and re-purposed. This method would be ideal as it would prevent spent lithium batteries from piling up in landfills and potentially leaching dangerous chemicals into the environment, all while contributing to the world’s massive waste problem. And lithium isn’t the only valuable metal that can be recovered from spent batteries: cobalt and nickel are prime targets as well. 

While lithium battery recycling is currently expensive and not widely adopted in the U.S., the industry is advancing rapidly to deal with the future influx of batteries. Research in this field has been historically concentrated in academic settings, but the anticipated explosion of the EV battery industry has inspired startups to focus on commercializing the new battery-recycling technology. As of 2021, there are more than a dozen lithium battery recycling startups launching in North America, with promising sustainable and non-toxic recycling processes. Potentially, in the near future, lithium battery recycling will be cheaper than mining virgin lithium.

To learn more about recycling lithium-ion batteries, be sure to check out our article explaining the key things you need to know.

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Advances in responsible lithium mining can help build the industry into a sustainable and reliable source of metal. This is great news! Whether you’re interested in solar-plus-storage or an EV, you can feel good about the lithium mining industry’s progress towards cleaner and more efficient techniques. At EnergySage, we do our research to enable you to make the best choice to fit your needs. Looking to install a solar-plus-storage system? Sign up on the EnergySage Marketplace to get up to seven free quotes from pre-vetted installers and explore your options!   

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About Anna Deitcher

Anna is a marketing intern at EnergySage, where she writes about all things related to clean energy. Currently, she’s a senior at Brown University with a dual major in business economics and environmental studies. This past summer she worked for a cleantech startup, constructing a commercialization strategy and doing market research. This fall she’s excited to learn more about the solar world with EnergySage! Outside of her studies, you can find Anna wearing #7 for Brown Women's Rugby team or outside, enjoying fall (her favorite season) in New England.

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