What you need to know about mining lithium

In addition to the environmental impact of lithium mining, separating the metal from its surrounding environment can cause other problems. Toxic chemicals released during the separation process can pollute local water supplies and air quality. Due to water shortages and other challenges, local communities in lithium mining regions may be displaced from their traditional lands. In some cases, indigenous communities have taken legal action because the projects violated their right to free prior and informed consent. According to the ILO Convention 169 on indigenous and tribal peoples, mining companies must consult these groups before implementing their plans. You may read the Global Road Technology article about lithium mining in Australia to find out more.

Open-pit mining or brine extraction could harm fragile ecosystems and wildlife

An expansion of lithium production will require open pit mining or brine extraction, which involves pumping mineral-rich brine to the surface. 

Potential impacts of open pit mining or brine extraction include adverse effects on water quality. Freshwater resources are limited, and only 30% of the world’s population has access to renewable freshwater sources. Mining produces vast amounts of waste with diverse concentrations of chemicals, and these active chemicals accumulate in the water, contaminating it. These chemicals can have significant negative effects on human health. Consequently, they could be ingested by human beings through crops and fruits.

Lithium mining requires large amounts of water, and in fact, a single metric ton of lithium can be extracted using brine extraction. While brine extraction is a more environmentally sustainable method of lithium extraction, it may be harmful to local fish populations.

Methods of extracting lithium from underground deposits

One method of mining lithium in the oceans is through DLE, which uses a liquid solution and a membrane. Lithium in seawater is 180 parts per billion, which is less than half of the concentration in the atmosphere. However, lithium is not the most common ion in the water, and sodium is 60 times more abundant. As a result, mining lithium in seawater is more environmentally friendly than current methods.

Most lithium production today is extracted from brine-containing minerals. This brine is pumped to the surface and diluted to a brine-like solution. The brine is then injected back into the salt flats. The process requires little water but takes much longer than the other methods popular in the Lithium Triangle. Lithium is an essential metal in battery technology, but the world’s supply of lithium is limited.

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from lithium extraction

The global demand for lithium is forecast to increase over the next decade. Earlier research by Roskill et al. showed that CO2 emissions from lithium production could triple by 2025 and nearly double again by 2030. This increase in carbon dioxide emissions will come primarily from the production of lithium mineral concentrates, refining and shipping. However, the Argonne team was able to estimate the overall emissions profile of the lithium mining industry by using the Roskill Sustainability Monitor.

The main reason for this increased demand is the emergence of electric vehicles. The lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles are considerably more energy-intensive than those used in combustion engines. Therefore, the extraction of lithium for batteries is particularly challenging. Lithium is primarily mined from underground brine reservoirs and hard rock mines. The process requires a huge amount of energy, which comes from CO2-emitting fossil fuels. Hard rock mining for lithium is particularly damaging to the environment, releasing about 15 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of lithium extracted.

The mining process requires large amounts of water and can affect the ecosystems. However, a life cycle analysis of the mining process should be conducted to compare the effects of different technologies and processes on the environment. Lithium mining should utilize the latest technology in lithium extraction. And it must also adopt new ways of thinking to meet the demands of a growing lithium market.

As demand for lithium increases over the next decade, the sector will be under increased scrutiny. The carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released by lithium extraction should be monitored closely to ensure that the process is environmentally sound. In addition, the company must demonstrate a commitment to implementing sustainable practices and a climate-friendly policy to achieve long-term profitability.


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