Lithium Mining and Its Impacts on the Environment

Lithium (Li) is a soft silvery element and turns into the lightest metal under specific conditions. It is stored in mineral oils as it is highly reactive and flammable. The production of lithium has witnessed several uses and changes in history.

Uses of Lithium

It has a remarkable use in nuclear physics. Together with its compounds, it has several industrial uses. Including heat resistant glass and ceramics, specific lubricants, flux additives for iron, steel and aluminum production, lithium batteries and lithium-ion batteries. Three-quarters of lithium production is consumed in all these uses. In the biological system, its trace amount found is also used to produce drugs for treating human from bipolar disorders.

Lithium is highly reactive and is one of the most abundant elements found. The pure form is not a natural process.  Breathing dust or other harmful component compounds harm respiratory tracts, and the metal form is highly corrosive. Prolonged exposure can trigger liquid to build-up in the lungs, leading to respiratory edema.

The metal itself becomes a handling hazard because when in contact with water, caustic hydroxide is produced, which causes an explosion.

Available sources for mining Lithium

Lithium salts are mostly extracted from water present in mineral springs, brine pools, and brine deposits. The actual mining of lithium ore is very expensive and overpriced. So brine excavation is the most popular lithium extraction technology widely used today.

The liquid lithium extracted from briny, underground ponds is dried after pumping out. Lithium carbonate produced is then processed into lithium. Lithium is present in seawater, but commercially and economically viable methods to extract it have yet to be developed. Another potential source of lithium is leachate. This is the liquid that has percolated from geothermal wells and is carried to the surface. The extraction of lithium in such case is demonstrated in the field where the lithium is separated by simple filtration.

Why lithium is preferred for battery making

The battery life of these lithium-ion batteries is to two to three years. This gives it the most promising chemistry and a fast-growing market simultaneously. With the development and much-increased demand in lithium-ion batteries since 2007, several have significantly expanded brine extraction.

As reported, the 3 countries producing Lithium are Australia, Chile, and Argentina. The “lithium triangle,” a junction crossing Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, consists of over 75% of identified lithium reserves. The leading producers of lithium, Chile, and Argentina recover it from brine pools. In the US, too, it’s extracted from brine pools in Nevada.

According to studies, it is concluded that the mass production of lithium carbonate is not environmentally sound and leading to irreparable ecological damage.

Use of Lithium-ion batteries

Lithium batteries are not considered hazardous to the environment. But becomes harmful when containing toxic metals and disposed of in large quantities. Hence we don’t usually see refurbished batteries in the market as its potentially harmful. This is due to the presence of significant safety risks for consumers, especially when used as components in products for which they are not designed. Apple & Samsung like many other tech companies sell refurbished devices but the batteries used inside such devices are brand new and perhaps only the PCB is reused in the refurbishing process

In contrast, lithium-ion or lithium-polymer cells are essentially utilized in the power bank, used to charge any device. Lithium-ion cells are rechargeable batteries made of lithium-ion. Whereas lithium-polymer cells are comparatively lightweight packed in a soft pouch.

Where are lithium batteries mostly used

Lithium-ion batteries are inside every iPhone, iPad, iPod, Apple Watch, and MacBook. Making it a device used for multitasking at all places. These lithium-ion batteries come in a lighter package and ideally charge faster. They last longer with a higher power density, increasing battery life. The iPhone battery uses fast charging to reach as high as eighty percent of its capacity and then switches to slower charging.

Standard lithium-ion batteries power the common man’s phone and can support fast charging to full in about an hour and a half.

Nature’s need for Lithium

A significant quantity of lithium has been found in drinking water in many areas. The intake of lithium by humans is mainly through grains and vegetables, as per geographical specifications and availability. Though there are no specific lithium deficiency diseases, lower lithium intakes from water supplies may be associated with increased rates of perversities, murders, medication use, and other crimes.

The mining of resources in every aspect has a serious impact on the environment. Though many developed countries keep pursuing their independent status from the use of fossil fuels, in favor of alternatives, the actual picture varies a lot.

The overall impact of Lithium production

Companies practicing mining of lithium in parts of Tibet, South America, Chile, and Bolivia are involved in rigorous extraction processes. These contribute to adverse environmental impacts, both ecologically and economically to the region.

The most readily available type of lithium for most consumers is lithium batteries. Transportation of certain lithium batteries may be prohibited, particularly on aircraft. Because of the ability of most types of lithium batteries to get fully discharge very rapidly. This leads to overheating and possible explosion. Commonly used lithium batteries have built-in thermal overload protection. This helps to prevent this type of incident or are otherwise designed to limit short-circuit currents.

Environmental concerns around Lithium mining

Some articles conclude that lithium mining in Chile, Argentina, and China is less hazardous than any other mineral extraction. Though the contamination level is lower compared to other extractions, it may still lead to nervous system disorders if exposure is extensive.

The social and environmental consequences of improved lithium demand are significant in the context of policy. For any technology, the intent of such initiatives has to be addressed completely. The impacts of lithium-ion batteries, including lithium mineral extraction, hence should be adequately addressed as well. This helps to investigate the scope and focus on changing research in this area and what drives their evolution.

The ecosystems in the lithium triangle region have significantly low precipitation. Running streams from the mountains are the only source of water. The livelihoods of local communities depend on this ecosystem. The region witnesses several species of birds and vegetation.

Creating Awareness as a solution

With regards to global biodiversity, land with particularly water-sensitive plant species, the slightest change in the water table can greatly affect its vegetation cover and plant diversity. But there are hardly any efforts observed by the scientific community to these issues. But if there are sufficient awareness and alertness in mainstream media, then the press can successfully use public opinion and increase pressure on the industry to address these emerging concerns as primary concerns.





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