The Spiraling Environmental Costs of Lithium Batteries Could Rival Fossil Fuel

February 9, 2021 at 6:11 pm




Without a renewable alternative to lithium batteries, electric cars will be no friendlier than fossil fuel

Lithium-rich brine is pumped out of a lake into evaporation ponds in Bolivia.




As we move into the era of “renewable” electricity, let us remember that the minerals used to make the batteries, used to store that electricity, are not renewable… or recyclable.

And the number of batteries we are going to need to meet the electricity needs of 8 billion people (16 billion in 50 years or so at the current population doubling rate) is enormous.

Every electric car battery requires around 25 pounds of lithium. And renewable energy grid storage systems for our homes and workplaces will require much more. Every smartphone, tablet, laptop and other battery powered device is also reliant on the “white gold.”

“Demand for lithium is increasing exponentially,” Wired reports. It doubled between 2016 and 2018, and is expected to be 8 times higher by 2027.

And lithium “renews” itself just about as fast as fossil fuel.

Not only is lithium not an infinite resource, the process of extracting and “refining” it is wreaking havoc on the environment, not so unlike that caused by extracting and refining petroleum.

Salt miners load a truck with lithium-rich salt in the Bolivian Andes, which are believed to contain 70% of the planet’s lithium. Credit: Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Lithium mining inevitably harms the soil, pollutes the air, and especially pollutes the water, according to a report by Friends of the Earth.

“Like any mining process, it is invasive, it scars the landscape, destroys the water table, and pollutes the earth and local wells,” says Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert from the University of Chile.

In Tibet, it is becoming commonplace to see masses of dead fish, yaks and cows floating downstream of a lithium mine on the Liqi River.

In Chile, a lithium mine in Salar de Atacama consumes 65% of the regional water supply in an area where many already had to get water driven in. Local quinoa and llama farmers are suffering.

And there’s always the potential for toxic chemicals to leak from the lithium evaporation pools into the local drinking water supply.

Those chemicals include hydrochloric acid used to process lithium and heavy metals filtered out of the brine. Research in Nevada found impacts on fish as far as 150 miles downstream from a lithium processing operation.

And, although it’s the most abundant, lithium isn’t even the most problematic ingredient of lithium ion batteries.

Cobalt and nickel are quickly becoming the new “blood diamonds” of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both are extremely toxic when pulled from the ground, often using child labor without protective equipment.

And, to top it all off, lithium-ion batteries are not recyclable, leaving their toxic contents to leach into landfills and ground water.

Sunshine, wind and water may be renewable resources, but without renewable materials to store the electricity they generate, we’ll eventually run out of lithium, the same way we are running out fossil fuel.

Tesla’s new “million-mile battery” is made from lithium-iron, instead of lithium-ion, which thankfully eliminates the use of cobalt and nickel. And, it’s also recyclable. But, as it’s name implies, lithium is still the primary ingredient.

Lucky for all of us there is a much, much better alternative, that doesn’t involve any mining and comes from a truly renewable resource – hemp!

Hemp batteries are eight times more powerful than lithium for a fraction of the cost, new research shows.