According to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), sales of electric vehicles will reach a record 3 million in 2020.
This is a 40% increase over 2019 and contrasts with overall car sales, which declined by 16%.
The report also estimates that electric vehicle sales could reach 23 million by 2030, due in part to the Biden administration’s announced goal of half of all vehicles sold being zero-emission by 2030.
Of course, lithium batteries are the preferred battery technology because they offer the best charge-to-weight ratio.
The transition to electric vehicles is being driven by major regulations in the United States, Canada and the European Union to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from internal combustion engine vehicles and pave the way to a greener, cleaner future, according to the Energy Agency.
How to obtain the components of a lithium battery
However, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) reports that the increasing prevalence of electric vehicles and the growing demand for lithium batteries pose a major environmental challenge.
“As demand for lithium increases and production is mined from deeper rock layers and brines, mitigation challenges will increase.
Lithium in its pure form does not occur naturally on Earth.
Currently, there are two viable ways to extract lithium: mining in hard rock or in evaporation ponds called brines.
Seawater represents a possible future source of lithium, but due to the high water, land, and time requirements, mining lithium from seawater is not feasible.
Due to its cost-effectiveness, brine is the most commonly used method for lithium extraction – 66% of the world’s lithium resources come from lithium brine deposits, according to the UNCTAD report.
Miners drill holes in the salt pans to extract the lithium and pump the salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface.
Once at the surface, the water evaporates, leaving behind a mixture of lithium, borax, manganese and potassium salts. The mixture is then filtered and sent to another evaporation tank, where it evaporates for another 12 to 18 months.
After this time, lithium carbonate and hydroxide are extracted and can be used to produce cathode material for batteries.
Materials such as cobalt and nickel are processed with lithium chemicals to produce battery electrodes.
According to a report by the Energy Research Institute (IER), about 500,000 tons of water are needed to extract one ton of lithium from brine.
If water were abundant, one could overlook the high demand mentioned above. However, more than 50% of lithium deposits are located in the “lithium triangle” of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, and according to UNCTAD, this area is one of the driest on earth.
The driest areas on earth
In the rugged plains of Chile’s Salar de Atacama, it has not rained “for at least as long as humans have kept records, ” according to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Geological Survey.
The result is a diverse but fragile ecosystem with limited water resources.
However, the Salar de Atacama is Chile’s largest salt desert and is rich in lithium salts just below the surface. Therefore, it has become an important source for lithium mining.
According to the IER, 65% of the water in the region is used for mining.
As a result, water scarcity has forced local farmers – who grow quinoa and raise llamas – and surrounding communities to abandon their ancestral settlements and find water elsewhere, according to UNCTAD.
“We used to have a river, but now it does not exist. There is not even a drop of water anymore,” Elena Rivera, president of the Colla indigenous community in the municipality of Copiapo, told the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
“And not just here in Copiapo, but all over Chile, there are rivers and lakes that have disappeared – and all because a company has a much greater right to water than we do as people or citizens of Chile.”
Copiapo is the capital of the Atacama region in Chile.
According to NRDC, the Atacama region is also an important habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife. However, mining activities are impacting these animals, 17 of which are considered endangered in Chile.
A variety of problems
Lack of water is not the only problem with lithium mining. UNCTAD reports that inhalation of lithium dust irritates the respiratory system and that prolonged exposure to lithium can lead to pulmonary edema.
Residents of Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto say that lithium mining using ac