Is Our Reliance On Lithium Ruining The Setting?


Expensive EarthTalk: Why is lithium mining so dangerous for the surroundings?

—Jane B., Atlanta, GA

lithium mining
An increasing lithium mine in Arizona is threatening the Hualapai tribe’s cultural and historic websites. Credit score: Richard Martin, FlickrCC.

Lithium is named “white gold” for good purpose: the metallic’s worth has been rising exponentially during the last a number of years, largely as a result of it’s an integral part of lithium-ion batteries, themselves indispensable in a number of key sustainable applied sciences the place vitality storage is of utmost significance. As electrical automobiles, wind and solar energy have grown into main gamers within the vitality business, lithium has turn out to be key to engineering a future freed from fossil fuels.

However buying lithium comes at an infinite value. As with most metals, its mining is harmful. It typically works like this: Briny water, containing lithium in addition to salts and different metals, is pumped to the floor from underground aquifers and combined with freshwater. The concoction then sits in swimming pools to permit the water to evaporate, leaving the remainder of its contents behind as brightly-colored poisonous sludge. Refineries use warmth and chemical reactions to extract the lithium from that, refining it into powder which is then packaged and shipped to consumers world wide. The remaining wastewater is pumped to swimming pools, the place it may sit indefinitely. Any accident that releases mine contents into surrounding communities or the groundwater provide may have devastating long-term impacts.

How a lot environmental degradation may be tolerated domestically within the title of conservation globally has led to debates in locations as far-flung as Chile, Serbia and Arizona. Indigenous communities typically bear the brunt of the injury, and political leaders have sometimes given little weight to their considerations. In Arizona, for instance, an increasing lithium mine is threatening the Hualapai tribe’s cultural and historic websites. Whereas Hualapai leaders have been combating to guard their land, Supreme Court docket precedent relationship to the 1820s has left them with little authorized leverage to wield in opposition to the large energy of the mining business and federal authorities. And for politicians who’ve pledged to work with native peoples to confront local weather change, mining lithium and different treasured metals is bringing priorities into battle: How do you guarantee the provision of supplies important to the way forward for renewables whereas defending tribal rights?

The U.S. presently produces only one % of the worldwide lithium provide, in response to The Wall Avenue Journal. However because the Biden administration strikes to spice up manufacturing of electrical autos and problem China’s market domination, mining of the metallic is anticipated to extend dramatically in coming years. Over time, specialists say, that may scale back fossil gas emissions by making electrical automobiles extra inexpensive, and subsequently extra common. Nonetheless, environmental leaders disagree as as to if the advantages of these cuts would outweigh the hurt performed to the individuals who depend on the mine-scarred land.

Some new analysis suggests a barely extra optimistic future situation. A 2020 College of Córdoba research in Spain discovered that the batteries might be recycled and reused, and will even work successfully with out cobalt, one other metallic that requires harmful mining practices. For now, although, lithium mining is poised to develop quickly to fulfill hovering demand. As environmentally acutely aware shoppers purchase electrical automobiles in ever-greater numbers, it’s essential to pay attention to the soiled course of that powers these clear air autos.

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