If we’re going to power our industrial civilization with solar and wind, we’re going to need batteries. Lots of them. We can’t control when it’s sunny or windy, so we have to store the power we get from solar and wind when we get it for use later, when it’s not sunny and not windy. And for electric vehicles (EVs), batteries are key.
So what powers batteries? Lithium. You might never have thought much about the lithium that’s in your batteries, but it has to come from somewhere. Just like other minerals, lithium is mined, by digging into the ground. It then has to be processed, which involves heating it and using chemicals to extract the lithium. Just like any other mining process, lithium mining causes environmental damage. Lithium batteries also use nickel and/or cobalt, both of which are also environmentally damaging to mine. And, like all minerals, and like fossil fuels, eventually, we’ll run out.
From the European Commission on Science for Environmental Policy: “[lithium’s] continued use needs to be monitored, especially as lithium mining’s toxicity and location in places of natural beauty can cause significant environmental, health, and social impacts.”
And from Friends of the Earth: “The extraction of lithium has significant environmental and social impacts, especially due to water pollution and depletion. In addition, toxic chemicals are needed to process lithium. The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production. Moreover, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination.”
The US currently imports 80% of its lithium. However, in 2013 a huge deposit of lithium was found in Wyoming. With a growing market for renewables, we’ll have a growing market for lithium batteries (predicted to increase 5 times by 2020), so look for lithium mining to begin in Wyoming soon.
This image, by photojournalist Ivan Alvarado, shows the lithium processing pools in the Atacama desert in Chile.