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The Harmful Effects of our Lithium Batteries
Blog...The Harmful Effects of our Lithium Batteries

The Harmful Effects of our Lithium Batteries

Green News
phone with back removed revealing lithium-ion battery
In this article we’ll explore why lithium batteries come with their own heavy environmental cost, and why they’re not necessarily the environmentally friendly alternative we’ve been led to believe.
Green News
phone with back removed revealing lithium-ion battery

Lithium and lithium-ion batteries have been heralded as environmental saviours, allowing us to decrease our reliance on carbon intensive fossil fuels and instead transition to electric vehicles and other more environmentally friendly technology. 

However, the materials needed to create these batteries - ingredients such as lithium, cobalt and nickel - present their own environmental challenges. The processes used to extract these metals can be incredibly harmful to the environment and local communities. 

👉 In this article we’ll explore why lithium batteries come with their own heavy environmental cost, and why they’re not necessarily the environmentally friendly alternative we’ve been led to believe.

What are lithium batteries?

First up, a little distinction. You’ve probably heard the terms lithium battery and lithium-ion battery, so what’s the difference between the two, if any? 

The main difference is that lithium batteries are non-rechargeable batteries, whereas lithium-ion batteries can be recharged many times without losing too much function. 

Lithium batteries are useful for long-life devices as they hold their charge for a significant amount of time. They’re often used in pacemakers and other important implantable electronic medical devices as they retain their power for 15 years or more. 

However, due to the cost of producing a lithium battery and the fact that a lithium battery will often outlast the lifespan of a device, lithium-ion batteries are often preferred. 

Lithium-ion batteries are the most common type of rechargeable battery around today. They power our mobile phones, wireless headphones, our laptops, and even electric cars - basically anything that requires rechargeable battery power. 

Lithium-ion batteries have become so popular because they’re one of the most energetic and reliable batteries around - even if they’ve occasionally been known to overheat and catch on fire! 

What both battery types have in common however is that they rely on a number of raw materials including lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt, and manganese.

electric vehicle on charge

Lithium batteries - environmental friend or foe?

It’s easy to understand why people associate lithium and lithium-ion batteries with being environmentally friendly. After all, when we use batteries we’re potentially avoiding the use of other more carbon intensive energy sources - take electric cars for example, they run on lithium-ion batteries and by purchasing an EV we are cutting down on the burning of fossil fuels such as petroleum. 

However, this is not the whole story, and lithium (and lithium-ion) batteries are increasingly attracting media attention and criticism for their negative environmental impacts.

Lithium Extraction

One of the primary reasons that lithium and lithium-ion batteries are considered to be harmful is because the extraction of lithium is so damaging to the environment. 

There are two main methods of commercial lithium extraction, namely salt flat brine extraction and open-pit mining:

Salt flat brines

The majority of today's commercial lithium production involves salt flat brines. Most of these underground brine reservoirs are found in what's known as the Lithium Triangle - an area along the borders of Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile that is rich in lithium. This area is thought to contain around 67% of the world’s known lithium reserves. 

Lithium recovery using salt flat brines is a relatively simple process. Salt water is pumped to the surface from underground water reservoirs, where it is stored in a series of evaporation ponds. Gradually over a period of around 12 to 18 months, the water evaporates from these ponds, leaving behind a brine with a high concentration of lithium. Once the concentration of lithium is high enough, a recovery facility is used to extract the metal.

Bolivian salt flats

Open-pit mining

The other form of commercial lithium production involves hard rock mining. This is a much more complex and intensive process than the salt flat brine extraction. 

Australia is home to the majority of the world’s lithium mining operations, though smaller operations also exist in Brazil, Portugal, South Africa, and China. Finland and North America are also expected to open lithium mines in the coming years. 

Ore pit mining involves the removal of minerals containing lithium. Once the ore is mined, it is then crushed and heated to a high temperature. The ore is then cooled and milled before being heated once again with sulphuric acid. This process is known as acid leaching and allows the lithium to be extracted.

machinery working on a mine site

Environmental harm

Any type of resource extraction is harmful to the environment. Removing raw materials results in soil degradation, water shortages, biodiversity loss, damage to ecosystems, and the release of carbon emissions.
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Loss of natural habitats

Whether lithium extraction involves salt flat brines or ore pit mining, land needs to be cleared to make way for these operations. Vegetation and trees must be destroyed and soil and earth removed - something that inevitably results in the destruction of natural habitats, and the loss of ecosystems and biodiversity.

large mine surrounded by forest

Water depletion

It’s not just the clearing of land to make way for lithium extraction facilities that impacts the environment, the extraction process itself is also damaging. Particularly where salt flat brines are involved. 

One of the biggest environmental concerns when it comes to the salt flat brine method of lithium extraction is the vast quantities of water involved. The use of evaporation ponds to separate the lithium requires huge amounts of water. In fact, in order to produce just one tonne of lithium, nearly 2.2 million litres of water is required. 

The water comes from underground sources, something that has been linked to the depletion of groundwater levels in surrounding areas and the expansion of desert land which is inhospitable and un-farmable.

This heavy use of valuable water resources, coupled with issues of contamination from the lithium extraction process, are threatening the ability of local communities to access safe and clean drinking water. 

In the Salar de Atacama region of Northern Chile, mining activities used an incredible 65% of the region's water supply, putting increased pressure on farmers in the area, and forcing local communities to source their water supply from elsewhere.

dry arid land

Threat to indigenous populations

Because the majority of salt flat brine facilities lie within South America’s so called ‘Lithium Triangle’ - an area that is home to a number of indigenous communities - these lithium extraction facilities and operations are increasingly finding themselves at odds with local populations.

As we’ve already touched on, lithium extraction in Chile’s Salar de Atacama region has been fostering tension between lithium extraction companies and the indigenous population. 

👉The Atacama region in northern Chile is home to around 40% of the world’s lithium supply. However, Indigenous communities and scientists warn that lithium extraction in the region will destroy the ecosystem and damage indigenous communities' ways of life. 

For such communities, the water beneath the salt planes not only serves a practical purpose, but also has a cultural and spiritual significance. For the Likan-Antai people for example, who call the Atacama Desert region in the North of Chile home, water is a source of life, and is considered to be as important as a member of their own community.

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Toxic chemicals

Another potential source of environmental harm when it comes to lithium extraction is the risk of toxic chemical leaks. It’s possible for harmful chemicals contained within the evaporation pools at salt flat brine extraction facilities to leak into local water supplies. 

Harmful chemicals include hydrochloric acid, which is purposely added during the extraction process, as well as other waste products that are filtered out. 

And it’s not just the salt brine flats that present a risk of chemical contamination. Lithium mining also requires the use of chemicals in order to extract lithium. 

In 2009, a lithium mining project located in China, known as the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine, was blamed for leaking toxic waste into the Liqi River which flows through Tibet. Villagers in the area have accused the facility of poisoning the waters, resulting in the death of vast numbers of fish, destroying sacred grassland, and even killing hundreds of yak who happened to drink from the river water. 

Much like the indigenous populations living within the ‘Lithium Triangle’, local communities in Tibet also believe that these areas of natural beauty hold spiritual significance, which is why the harm caused spans beyond environmental considerations. 

God is in the mountains and the rivers, these are places that spirits live. When mining comes and the grassland is dug up, people believe worse disasters will come. It destroys the mountain god.
small fishing boat on large river

The harm from other key ingredients in lithium batteries

The harm to the environment doesn’t start and end with lithium extraction. Unfortunately there are several other ingredients in lithium and lithium-ion batteries that are also cause for concern. 

Cobalt and nickel for example are two components that come with a heavy environmental cost.

The issue with cobalt mining

Cobalt is mined in parts of Africa, primarily central Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. What makes cobalt so harmful for the environment is that it’s incredibly toxic, starting from the moment it’s extracted. 

👉 The DRC is thought to contain half of the world’s cobalt reserves and currently accounts for 70% of global cobalt production. 

What's compounded the issue is that a sharp rise in price for the metal has fuelled a rise in artisanal mines - ie. ad-hoc setups that often rely on child labour to extract the material. Workers are commonly denied protective equipment, and practices of extraction are incredibly unsafe. 

These ad-hoc mining practices don’t just have a human toll, there's an environmental cost too. Unregulated toxic dumping is destroying landscapes, polluting water supplies, and even contaminating crops. 

Studies of bodies of water lying close to cobalt mines have found that fish have high levels of the metal. This contamination is destroying ecosystems and the harmful minerals can be easily passed to humans when they eat the fish or drink from the same water supply. And since cobalt is considered to be a potential carcinogen it represents a significant human health hazard.

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The issue with nickel mining

As is the case with cobalt, nickel mining is not without its own environmental concerns.

Nickel is a metal that is widely used in various industrial and consumer goods, it’s also a key ingredient in lithium batteries. However, mining of this metal has been linked to environmental issues such as air and water pollution, soil degradation, and the destruction of natural habitats. 

Nickel mines are mainly found in Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Russia and the Philippines, and depending on the country, regulations and laws surrounding the mining process can vary. 

The process of extracting nickel is high risk as it releases plumes of sulphur dioxide and cancer-causing dust (a mixture of nickel, copper, cobalt and chromium). Therefore, depending on the laws of the country, workers, local communities and the surrounding environment may be at risk from harmful nickel mining practices. 

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Mineral crisis

Regardless of environmental concerns, the bottom line is that minerals such as lithium, cobalt and nickel are finite resources which means that at some point they’ll run out. Therefore, researchers across the world are currently looking for alternatives that are not only more environmentally friendly, but also sustainable. 

In addition to studying alternative minerals for lithium batteries, scientists are also looking into ways to better recycle lithium-ion waste. This will help to minimise the amount that we’re extracting from the earth, while also limiting the amount of damage that chemicals in old discarded batteries can cause.

The paradox of lithium batteries

Out of the frying pan and into the fire - perhaps this phrase best sums up our increasing dependence on lithium and lithium-ion batteries. Yes, it's true that lithium batteries offer a way out of our reliance on incredibly damaging fossil fuels. However, it comes at a cost because mining the raw materials needed to produce these batteries is also incredibly harmful for the environment.

What about Greenly? 

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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