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Last updated: 26 April 2024

Is Lithium Mining Bad For The Environment?

Lithium mining plays a pivotal role in our transition towards renewable energy and electrification, particularly in powering electric vehicles (EVs) and storing solar and wind energy. However, this process has environmental impacts, raising the question: Is lithium mining bad for the environment?

Lithium mining, with almost 90%, is primarily concentrated in regions like Australia, Chile, Argentina, and China. These countries, including Argentina, Zimbabwe, and Brazil, were key contributors to the lithium market in 2023, with a total production of 170.8 thousand tonnes

The extraction process, mainly through brine mining, poses significant risks, including water pollution and depletion, biodiversity loss, and carbon emissions. Every tonne of mined lithium results in 15 tonnes of CO2 emissions in the environment. In addition, it is estimated that about 500,000 litres of water are needed to mine approximately 2.2 million litres per tonne of lithium. 

This substantially impacts the environment, leading to water scarcity in already arid regions. This is not just a story of technological advancement but also one of environmental concern.

Balancing the demand for lithium with the need to protect the environment is crucial for ensuring a sustainable future.

What do we mean by lithium mining exactly?

Lithium mining refers to the extraction of lithium. This chemical element is crucial for producing lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles (EVs), portable electronics, and energy storage solutions. 

Lithium production has dramatically increased over the past decade, with global output surpassing 100,000 tonnes for the first time in 2021, a fourfold increase from 2010. 

Lithium is primarily extracted from brine water and hard-rock (spodumene) deposits.

Brine extraction, which accounts for 66% of the total lithium production, involves pumping underground brine to the surface and allowing the water to evaporate, leaving behind lithium carbonate. 

Hard-rock mining involves extracting lithium-bearing minerals from rock through traditional mining techniques.

The environmental impact of lithium mining

Lithium mining's environmental consequences vary significantly. The extraction process can lead to soil degradation, water scarcity, and air contamination, raising concerns about the sustainability of this critical resource.

Lithium production has risen to meet the soaring demand for electric vehicles (EVs), batteries and energy storage systems. In 2022, global lithium mines produced an estimated 130,000 metric tons

The demand for lithium, primarily driven by the battery sector, is expected to grow annually by 25 to 26 per cent, reaching between 3.3 million and 3.8 million metric tons by 2030. With increasing supply and demand, these mining practices pose serious environmental challenges. 

Top lithium production by country 

CountryProduction (metric tons)Known Reserves (tons)
Australia86,0006.3 million 
Chile44,0009.3 million
China33,0005.1 million
Argentina9,60019 million
Brazil4,9000.47 million
Zimbabwe3,4000.50 Million

What is so bad about lithium mining for the environment

Lithium mining poses several environmental challenges:

  • Water usage: Lithium extraction requires significant water, particularly from brine deposits. Approximately 500,000 litres of water are needed to extract one ton of lithium, which can lead to water depletion in arid regions and affect local communities and ecosystems. 

For instance, the Thacker Pass project in Nevada is expected to produce 60,000 tons of lithium annually, consume 1.7 billion gallons of water annually, and emit 152,713 tons of carbon dioxide.

  • Pollution: The process can contaminate soil and air, leading to biodiversity loss and damage to ecosystem functions.
  • Carbon emissions: Producing lithium batteries can emit more carbon dioxide than manufacturing conventional cars. For instance, producing a 1,100-pound battery can emit over 70% more CO2 than producing a traditional car in Germany. With the global lithium market approaching £6 billion, the carbon footprint of lithium mining cannot be overlooked. 
  • Waste: Lithium mining generates large quantities of mineral waste, which can lead to increased respiratory problems and alter the hydrological cycle.
  • Energy consumption: Lithium mining, particularly from hard rock sources, is energy-intensive, requiring substantial electricity for crushing, grinding, and chemical separation processes. This energy often comes from non-renewable sources, exacerbating carbon emissions and the carbon footprint of lithium production. Traditional brine and hard rock extraction methods emit up to 2.8 and 17.1 tonnes of CO₂ per tonne of Lithium Carbonate Equivalent (LCE), respectively.
  • Soil and water contamination: The chemicals used in lithium extraction, such as sulfuric acid, can contaminate soil and water sources, posing risks to human health and wildlife.
  • Impact on local communities: Lithium mining has led to social struggles and human rights issues, particularly affecting indigenous communities. Extraction has displaced many from their ancestral lands, leading to water rights conflicts

What is the impact of lithium mining

Total impact per year

The environmental impact of lithium mining is significant when considering the annual production figures. With the current production of 130,000 metric tons, the water usage alone for extraction is substantial, and the potential for pollution and carbon emissions is high.

Impact per day

Daily, the impact of lithium mining includes the continuous use of water resources, the generation of waste, and the potential for pollution. This daily toll on the environment can lead to long-term ecological damage.

Impact per usage

For each ton of lithium used in batteries, the environmental cost includes the water as mentioned above, usage, pollution, and carbon emissions. The impact per usage becomes particularly concerning as the demand for lithium-ion batteries rises.

Lithium production and consumption

CountryPercentage of Global Lithium ProductionKey Environmental Concerns
Australia55%Mining waste, water usage
Chile26%Water scarcity, pollution
China14%Soil degradation, emissions
Argentina6%Drought, agricultural impact

Top Product Categories of Lithium

The comprehensive use of lithium across various product categories. Its unique properties, such as high energy density and low weight, make it indispensable in multiple applications.

Lithium-Ion Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries are the cornerstone of lithium usage, accounting for approximately 90% of the global lithium consumption in 2022. These batteries power a vast range of products:

  • Consumer Electronics: Smartphones, laptops, portable chargers, and tablets are ubiquitous in today's digital age, all powered by lithium-ion batteries.
  • Electric Vehicles (EVs): The automotive industry's shift towards electric mobility significantly drives lithium demand, with EVs relying on lithium-ion batteries for energy storage.
  • Energy Storage Systems: Lithium batteries are crucial for storing wind and solar power, facilitating the transition to renewable energy sources.
  • Portable Power Tools: From drills to electric lawnmowers, lithium batteries offer the high energy density required for cordless tools.

Medical Devices

Lithium batteries are also vital in the healthcare sector, powering various medical devices such as pacemakers, portable diagnostic equipment, and electric wheelchairs. Their reliability and long life make them indispensable in life-saving applications.

Aerospace and Defense

Lithium's lightweight and high energy density characteristics are highly valued in aerospace and defence. Lithium batteries and alloys are used in satellites, space vehicles, and various military applications, where performance and reliability are critical.

Consumer Goods

Beyond electronics and vehicles, lithium finds its way into everyday items, including:

  • Cosmetics: Lithium stearate is used in a wide range of cosmetic products, acting as a lubricant and helping to keep emulsions stable.
  • Glassware and Ceramics: Lithium carbonate is added to glass and ceramics to lower their melting points and improve durability.
  • Security Systems: Lithium batteries are often used for longevity and performance in security devices.

Entertainment and Leisure

Lithium contributes to leisure and entertainment through:

  • Fireworks: Lithium produces a crimson flame, adding to the visual spectacle of firework displays

Environmental impact compared to everyday things

Like any mining activity, lithium mining has its environmental footprint, primarily concerning CO2 emissions. Approximately 15 tonnes of CO2 are emitted for every tonne of lithium extracted. This high carbon footprint is primarily due to the energy-intensive nature of the extraction and processing phases, which often rely on fossil fuels. 

Most of the world's lithium-ion batteries, integral to clean technologies, are produced in China, where coal, a high CO2-emitting energy source, dominates. 

Comparison with everyday items and activities

To put this into perspective, comparing these emissions to those from common items and activities is helpful. This comparison makes the data more relatable and highlights the environmental cost of our technological dependencies.

Item/ActivityCO2 Emissions (kg CO2 equivalent)
Lithium mining (per kg of lithium produced)15 kg
Driving a petrol car (per 100 km)22.4 kg
One-way flight from London to New York986 kg (per passenger)
Annual electricity use of an average UK household2,540 kg
Manufacturing a smartphone55 kg
A cup of coffee0.21 kg
Data sourced from top environmental research and industry reports as of 2023.

This table reveals that while lithium mining has significant CO2 emissions compared to activities like flying or even the annual electricity use of a household, its impact can be contextualised within a broader environmental framework.

Degradability dilemma in lithium mining

Lithium-ion batteries are not biodegradable. They pose a significant waste management problem at the end of their life. It is estimated that by 2030, the world will produce around 15 million metric tons of discarded batteries, most of which are likely to end up in landfills. 

The degradation of these batteries involves complex physical and chemical changes, and while some components can be recycled, the process is challenging and economical. 

Proper disposal of used lithium-ion batteries is crucial to prevent environmental damage and fires at recycling and waste facilities. 

Can lithium be recycled?

Yes, lithium can be recycled. Lithium-ion batteries are a key focus of recycling efforts due to their widespread use and the valuable materials they contain. Recycling these batteries conserves resources, reduces environmental impact, and can be economically beneficial.

Current recycling techniques

The recycling of lithium-ion batteries can be categorised into three main processes:

  1. Pyrometallurgy uses high temperatures to facilitate oxidation and reduction reactions, converting metal oxides in battery materials to metal or metal compounds.
  2. Hydrometallurgy uses aqueous solutions to extract and separate metals from battery resources.
  3. Direct Recycling: This approach focuses on removing cathode material for reuse or reconditioning, which allows recyclers to retain the crystal structure of the cathode material.

Recent advances in recycling technology have made the process more viable and attractive. For example, a new technique using a eutectic mixture of lithium iodide (LiI) and lithium hydroxide (LiOH) has been developed, which melts at a lower temperature, allowing for the direct recycling of cathode materials. 

In addition, Asia Pacific, particularly China, is leading the charge in both lithium consumption and recycling efforts due to its dominant position in the electronics and electric vehicle markets.

Despite the benefits, there are challenges to lithium recycling, such as the complexity and need for uniformity in battery designs, which can be barriers to efficient recycling processes. 

Is lithium mining sustainable?

Lithium mining, like most mining activities, has a significant environmental footprint. The extraction process can harm the soil by causing air contamination, and in places like South America's lithium fields, it can lead to water scarcity and affect local communities. 

Environmental ImpactTraditional MethodSustainable Method
Water Consumption500,000 litres/tonSignificantly reduced
CO2 EmissionsHighLower
Soil/Air ContaminationYesMinimal
Economic BenefitHighHigh with potential for growth

In other words,  lithium mining is not currently sustainable in its traditional form. 

What are alternatives to lithium mining?

While lithium mining has enabled significant advancements in energy storage, it poses significant environmental and ethical challenges, including water depletion and habitat destruction. 

As the demand for energy storage solutions grows, exploring alternatives to lithium mining that could offer more sustainable and ethical options is imperative.

Alternatives to lithium mining

  1. Sodium-ion batteries: These batteries use sodium ions instead of lithium and can be extracted from seawater, making them more abundant and potentially cheaper. However, they have a lower energy density.
  2. Lithium-sulfur batteries: Offering higher energy density and lower production costs, lithium-sulfur batteries replace cobalt with sulfur. They are still being developed due to issues with fast degradation rates.
  3. Solid-state batteries: These batteries use a solid electrolyte instead of a liquid one, which could make them safer and longer-lasting. They are expected to be used in electric vehicles by 2024.
  4. Hydrogen fuel cells: Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, with water as the only byproduct. They are suitable for larger vehicles like buses and trucks.
  5. Aqueous magnesium batteries: Magnesium offers a higher ionic charge than lithium, which could lead to higher energy density. These batteries are still in the early stages of research.
  6. Cobalt-free Lithium-ion Batteries: These batteries eliminate the need for cobalt, which is expensive and has ethical mining concerns. Some electric vehicle manufacturers are currently using them.
Alternative TechnologyAbundanceCostEnergy DensityEnvironmental ImpactStage of Development
Sodium-ion BatteriesHighLowLowerLowerResearch
Lithium-sulfur BatteriesModerateLowerHigherLowerEarly Commercial
Solid-state BatteriesModerateHighHigherLowerEarly Commercial
Hydrogen Fuel CellsHighHighModerateLowerCommercial
Aqueous Magnesium BatteriesHighUnknownHigherLowerResearch
Cobalt-free Li-ion BatteriesHighModerateSimilarLowerCommercial

This table provides a snapshot of the current state of alternatives to lithium mining, considering factors such as abundance, cost, energy density, environmental impact, and the stage of development.

Is it better than alternatives?

Sodium-ion batteries are emerging as a compelling alternative due to their environmental and economic benefits. They are more abundant and less harmful to mine, which could lead to a more sustainable and economically inclusive energy storage solution. However, they have a lower energy density than lithium-ion batteries, making them less suitable for applications where size and weight are critical, such as smartphones and electric vehicles.

While lithium mining is currently the dominant method for producing batteries for electric vehicles and other technologies, a higher energy density allows them to store more energy in a given volume. This makes them suitable for a wide range of applications. They also have a long life cycle and do not suffer significantly from memory effects.

However, the alternatives listed above are gaining traction due to their potential environmental and ethical benefits.

Statistics, facts and figures about lithium mining

Lithium, often called "white gold," is at the heart of the modern technological revolution, powering everything from electric vehicles (EVs) to smartphones. Here are some key statistics and insights into the production and usage of lithium, providing a comprehensive worldwide perspective. 

As of 2023, Chile boasts the largest lithium reserves, estimated at 9.3 million metric tons, positioning it as a leading player in the global lithium market. 

The total estimated reserves of lithium worldwide reached 26 million metric tons in 2022, highlighting the vast potential for lithium mining operations globally.

China is the world's largest consumer of lithium, accounting for a 39 per cent share of global lithium consumption since 2019.

Global lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) production was 540,000 tonnes in 2021.

By 2025, demand is expected to reach 1.5 million tonnes of LCE; by 2030, this number is estimated to exceed 3 million tonnes. 

Much of Australia's lithium supply is exported to China as spodumene.

The global lithium mining market was valued at approximately GBP 254.8 million in 2020 and is projected to grow to approximately GBP 409.6 million by 2028.

The Wall Street Journal in 2019 revealed that 40% of the total climate impact caused by the production of lithium-ion batteries is attributed to the mining and processing of lithium.

In April 2023, Chile announced plans to nationalise its lithium industry, which could have significant implications for global lithium supply and market dynamics.

Global lithium production surpassed 100,000 tonnes for the first time in 2021, marking a significant increase from 2010.

Towards a sustainable future

Globally, the push towards renewable energy and electric vehicles has placed lithium at the forefront of sustainable technology. However, this comes with its environmental challenges. For instance, in countries like Chile and Argentina, which host some of the largest lithium reserves, there's concern over water usage and chemical leakage in lithium extraction.

Yet, when comparing the CO2 emissions from lithium mining to the emissions saved by reducing reliance on fossil fuels through electric vehicles, the potential for a net positive environmental impact is clear. For example, the CO2 emissions avoided by using an electric vehicle powered by lithium batteries can offset the emissions from lithium mining within a few years.

For instance, replacing a gas-powered vehicle with an EV can prevent 4.6 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. However, investing in alternative battery technologies, improving lithium recycling, and developing more environmentally friendly mining methods is essential to progress towards sustainability.

As we continue to navigate the path of technological advancement, balancing the benefits of lithium-based technologies with their environmental costs will be crucial.

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