It is easy to be skeptical of the hype surrounding the next “green” energy technology that is going to lift us into a blissful future of sustainability.
But, dig down a layer and you see this is a classic story of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. All energy-related technologies have impacts. So, if some purported green technology to you means “no impact” or even “net positive impact,” then I have news for you — you are in the business of pipe dreams.
Even if we can agree on a technology being an unalloyed good, such as energy storage or electric vehicles, for instance, then our critical eye turns to the materials that go into making that newfangled technology. After all, those materials were undoubtedly mined, extracted, processed and distributed in ways that are deleterious to the environment, right?
A perfect case study to illustrate this challenge concerns lithium, which is one of the key elements in battery technology. There are five storylines that define the contours of whether lithium is a green story or just greenwash.
- Mining deservedly has a bad rap, but it is a necessary cost of modern civilization.
Mining is a nasty business. However, accepting that mining has some degree of impact is something that we all implicitly have accepted as a necessary cost of modern civilization. For those environmentalists (which I call myself) or impact investors (who are my clients, colleagues and collaborators) whose hackles have gone up — let me ask you one question: What technologies have you forgone for the sole purpose of reducing the demand for the resources that are mined from the earth? I would venture a guess that even the greenest environmentalist or the most socially conscious investor has not forsaken all the technological comforts of modern life.
- Not all mining is created equal.
It is probably not much comfort to claim that lithium mining is not nearly as damaging as mountaintop removal for coal or extracting tar sands in Alberta. These are two of the bad-boy extremes of mining.
Lithium mining, in comparison, is relatively benign. Most lithium mines would not appear to the untrained eye to be mines at all. That is because most lithium is extracted from salt brines through evaporating salt ponds. Brine deposits represent about 66 percent of global lithium resources, and the majority of lithium mining is done through brine mining as opposed to more conventional hard rock mining. The reason is that salt brine lithium mining operations are smaller-scale, cheaper, less risky and cleaner than lithium rock mining.
The process is quite simple. Subterraneous brine from unconsolidated sediments (gravel, sand, silt, etc.) is pumped and concentrated in evaporation pools on the surface. The linked pools have progressively higher concentrations of lithium. After 9 months to 12 months of evaporation, the concentrate reaches 1 percent to 2 percent lithium, which is then further processed into end products such as lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide or other forms.
Sounds like a pretty clean operation, right? Well, this is mining, after all, and mining comes with impacts, even if the impact of lithium brine mining is on an entirely different scale than many others.
Mining companies prospecting for lithium require extensive extraction operations and water in what are generally very arid lands. The land required for the typical lithium brine mining operation is substantial, though not as extensive as many mining operations.
- Can the small world of lithium mining meet the growing demand?
Though lithium is a not a rare element, it is highly diffuse, with only a small number of regions worldwide with concentrations high enough to be mineable. Some 97 percent of lithium production comes from just four countries. Australia is the top producer worldwide with 14,300 tons of production in 2016, followed by Chile (12,000 tons), Argentina (5,700 tons), and China (2,000 tons).
This begs the question, How much lithium do we have? And can the supply of lithium possibly keep up with demand?
The proven economically recoverable reserves of lithium are on the order of 14 million tons. At current levels of production, that would afford us 400 years of lithium. To put this in perspective, many other mined metals have less than 100 years of proven reserves assuming current levels of demand. If you count known resources of lithium, which amount to nearly 40 million tons, then we have more than a millennium of lithium on our hands at current consumption levels.
- Remember the last of the three R’s
The Three R’s — Reduce, Reuse and Recycle — were probably burned into your memory in middle school. In the case of lithium, the last R is a big deal, and one that is often overlooked. It turns out that lithium-ion batteries are well-suited for recycling. An expert from Panasonic recently claimed that he expects to see recycling rates for lithium batteries approach 100 percent in the future. That might be a little bullish, but I like the ambition.
Until recently, recycling lithium-ion batteries did not make economic sense. Lithium only makes up 3 percent of the production cost of a battery, and the other metals typically found in lithium-ion batteries (e.g., cobalt, nickel, copper) are much more valuable. So, recycling a battery just for the sake of reusing the lithium does not make sense. A more comprehensive recycling of all the valuable battery components, however, does make sense.
If only it were that simple. Suffice it to say that there is legitimate debate about how to recycle lithium-ion batteries economically and at a meaningful scale.
There has been a large amount of government and private sector investment in research and development of lithium-ion battery recycling techniques. These investments are spurred by the recognition that: 1) recycling needs to be solved so lithium-ion batteries can scale if supply constraints are reached in the future and, 2) there is a tremendous economic opportunity here given the dynamics of demand for lithium.
- Technological progress may further reduce impact of lithium brine mining
According to a Credit Suisse report, “Lithium brine deposits typically outperform hard rock lithium sources on cost, sustainability and permitting. This gap is becoming more pronounced when we take into account technological advancements in brine processing.”
Technological progress has already made lithium brine mining much more economical than lithium rock mining (which takes place primarily in Australia and China), and the majority of new mines employ this cheaper, safer, more efficient technique.
But progress has not stopped. A new process is being developed by an Italian company called Tenova SpA. This method really takes the mine out of the mining, in some sense. The process uses an ion-exchange system to strip the lithium and then returns the water to the ground. This would eliminate the need for evaporation ponds, which is one of the only elements of the mining process that poses a risk to human health. Importantly, it would also reduce production time to hours rather than months, while also yielding a higher concentration of lithium. The only catch is that the process has not been proven at scale, though there are some pilot projects functioning to work out the kinks.
The lithium market is undergoing a rapid expansion due to the rising demand for lithium-ion battery technology. Not only is lithium brine mining one of the most benign forms of mining, but it continues to reduce its environmental impact through technological advances.
Now place these impacts within the context of lithium being an essential element in the battery technology that we need to support the transition to a low-carbon energy system. The case to support the environmental merit of lithium mining should be self-evident.
Chris Clement (Christopher.firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner at IronOak Energy.