Lithium batteries – the Achilles heel of electric vehicles

Krista Dettweiler / The United States makes billions for lithium mining. But no one wants environmental pollution in their area.

On a dormant volcano in northern Nevada, workers prepare for blasting work and a massive excavation to power a large lithium mine. It’s the first in over ten years. This is where the material that powers electric batteries and is needed for renewable energy systems is broken down. The mine aims to break the United States’ near-total dependence on foreign suppliers.

Lots of water and a huge mountain of trash

However, the project, known as Lithium Americas, is facing resistance. Indigenous peoples, farmers and environmental organizations object because the mine is expected to use billions of liters of valuable groundwater and could contaminate parts of it for 300 years. In addition, the mine leaves behind a huge mountain of garbage. It is a battle between David and Goliath. And she’s not the only one. All over the world, disputes are raging over the extraction of raw materials for supposedly green energies.

Instead of oil and gold now lithium, cobalt and nickel

Mining of lithium, cobalt, and nickel is causing massive damage that is often overlooked in the race between the USA, China, Europe and other countries. The current battle over minerals that can help their countries achieve economic and economic dominance in the coming decades, can be compared to the historical disputes over gold or oil.

The Nevada project, for example, which got the green light in the final days of Trump’s presidency, aims to secure US leadership in producing these raw materials, especially since President Joe Biden is committed to protecting the climate. More lithium mines are already planned in California, Oregon, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina.

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Amy Boulanger is director of the Responsible Mining Assurance Initiative, an organization that oversees mining projects by BMW, Ford, and others. “While intentions are good, our clean energy needs can do a lot of damage,” she told the New York Times. “It doesn’t have to happen.”

In the first quarter of 2021, US lithium miners raised $3.5 billion on Wall Street, seven times more than they had raised in the previous three years. Experts assume that demand for lithium will increase tenfold before the end of this decade, after all, after all, Tesla, Volkswagen, General Motors and others have dozens of new electric models in the pipeline. Although the United States has huge reserves, only one large lithium mine – Silver Peak in Nevada – is currently operating. It has produced about 5,000 tons per year since the 1960s, less than 2% of global production. Most of them come from Latin America or Australia and are mostly used in batteries in China and other Asian countries.

US mining companies now want to dramatically increase lithium production and want the US government to support $10 billion as part of a planned infrastructure program. They argue that it is a matter of national security. A Piedmont lithium lobbyist warns that if China stops deliveries to the US, there will be dire consequences.

“Clean” energies lead to massive environmental pollution

On the other hand, environmental activists, local groups and indigenous tribes are warning of serious harms from lithium mining. The Americas Lithium Mine could soon be drilled near the Edward Bartle farm in Nevada. It will reach a depth of about 112 meters. The company expects the mine to consume more than 12,000 liters of water per minute, which will lower the water level in Baril Land by 3.5 metres. According to government documents, the production of 66 thousand tons of lithium carbonate can poison groundwater with minerals containing arsenic and antimony. In order to extract lithium, the extracted slurry is mixed with up to 5800 tons of sulfuric acid every day. Operating authorization documents state that this process will produce 270 million cubic meters of waste containing sulfuric acid, which may also contain low-level radioactive uranium. In addition, large areas of antelope grazing grounds and grouse breeding areas were affected.

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Despite everything, Lithium Americas hopes to start operating its mine next year and earn about four billion dollars. The main shareholder of the company is the Chinese company Ganfeng Lithium.

Car manufacturers are doing their best to distinguish themselves from such projects. Sue Slaughter, director of supply chain sustainability, told the New York Times, “Indigenous peoples are getting homeless, their water is poisoning… We don’t want to keep up. We want the companies we buy from to produce responsibly. As a wholesale buyer, we have the power to influence the situation, and we will.” That too.”


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Opinions expressed in articles on Infosperber correspond to the author’s subjective assessments.

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