If you are reading this article on your laptop or smartphone, you are most likely the owner of a lithium-ion (or other lithium polymer) battery. These are not, however, the main reasons why the use of lithium has increased rapidly. The real reason is the increasing popularity of electric vehicles (EV), especially cars. This trend is so impactful that it has earned its own name, namely the “EV revolution”. The use of lithium batteries in cars is a result of the specific properties of these batteries, as they are rechargeable, can be charged relatively rapidly and the newer variants of these have longer lifespans. Lithium battery usage also holds strong growth potential because they are promising candidates as energy storage solutions in power grids.
During the past five years, the price of lithium has increased by 167 percent, however, the first quarter of 2019 has actually seen the first decline in a long time.
The spike in demand has naturally also caused lithium prices to rise dramatically during the past few years. During the past five years, the price of lithium has increased by 167 percent, however, the first quarter of 2019 has actually seen the first decline in a long time. This fall in price is mainly due to an increase in the export volumes, especially from Chile. China, Australia and Chile account for around 85% of lithium production. However, the pricing of lithium is characterized by low transparency and liquidity. This is nevertheless expected to change as financial traders are starting to enter the market, which will lead to increased price transparency.
As the use of lithium-ion batteries increases, so does the production of lithium. There are two main ways to produce lithium. One is hard-rock mining, however, a far more common method is to use brine water. Brine water exists in places known as salars. Water trapped beneath these salt fields is rich in minerals such as copper, potassium and – lithium. This water can be pumped up to the surface, where the lithium can be extracted after the water has evaporated from ponds. This process is both slow and inefficient, as it is highly dependent on weather conditions.
The lithium-extraction process from brine is a process that uses a lot of fresh water. This is problematic because salars are located in very dry regions, where fresh water is a scarce resource.
So, what are the issues related to the use of lithium? The lithium-extraction process from brine is a process that uses a lot of fresh water. This is problematic because salars are located in very dry regions, where fresh water is a scarce resource. This is currently causing issues in for example Chile, which is one of the lithium-richest countries in the world. The salars in Chile are located in the driest desert in the world. Therefore, the growing demand for lithium has caused the Chilean government a real headache and has led to a heated debate on restricting water use in mining. Mining companies are already required to purchase water rights, however, the increasing demand for lithium combined with the restricted supply of water is complicating the situation. Researchers are also calling for more research on how the extraction of brine water affects the supply of fresh water, as some believe that the link between the these two may be more complex than what is currently believed.
A second issue related to the use of lithium is that in lithium batteries, lithium is often combined with cobalt. Cobalt is a by-product mineral of copper mining, and it is almost solely found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). There have been widespread consumer-concerns regarding the traceability of cobalt, as its production in DRC is connected to issues such as artisanal mining and child labour. Artisanal mining means that the mines are “informal”, small scale mines, as compared to large, industrial mines. Issues with artisanal mines are for example unsafe working conditions and low human rights protection. While the price of cobalt has increased by over 300 percent during the past two years, this increase has not reached the people working in the mines.
Thus, it is clear that there are severe issues related to the use of lithium. A report from McKinsey expects the demand for lithium to increase by more than 300 percent by 2025, while the corresponding number for cobalt is 160 percent. The question then is, can supply meet this demand and – can this be done in a sustainable way?
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Flexer, V., Baspineiro, C. F., & Galli, C. I. (2018). Lithium recovery from brines: A vital raw material for green energies with a potential environmental impact in its mining and processing. Science of The Total Environment, 639, 1188-1204.