- The demand for lithium has surged significantly due to the high demand for lithium-ion batteries used in portable devices and electric vehicles.
- Lithium is primarily extracted from ore mining and salt deserts which are also known as salars.
- The lithium extraction process involves high usage of water and has significant environmental impacts.
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The demand for lithium has surged to record high levels in the past few years. The introduction of digital and smart technologies has almost made battery-powered gadgets a need of the hour. Lithium is used to manufacture Lithium-Ion batteries (LIBs), the powerhouse of almost all portable devices.
The euphoria around the green and renewable energy sources worldwide has also pushed the demand for LIBs to store energy that ultimately led to increased consumption of lithium globally. Furthermore, the world’s fascination with brand new electric vehicle (EV) models has buoyed the demand for LIBs, which are used to power EVs.
Strong support from international governments and commitments to curb carbon emission levels have fueled the demand for EVs to the next level. New age LIBs are the backbone of the electric revolution. The current advancement in battery technology has supported the automobile industry to cope with the industry's challenges like lower power, lower mileage, and higher charging time.
Why is lithium so important, and from where it is mined?
Lithium is a highly reactive element of the chemical group alkali metals. The element is highly reactive due to its electronic configuration and is not found in its pure form. Lithium contains a single electron in its outermost shell that enables it to form a chemical bond when the shell is open.
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Lithium is also one of the lightest alkali metals, making it an incredible choice for battery metals and electronic gadgets. Lithium ions move from the negative to the positive electrode on discharging and vice versa. LIBs can provide three times the energy density relative to conventional rechargeable lead batteries.
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As per United States Geological Survey (USGS) 2021 data, Australia was the largest lithium producer globally in 2020, while Chile held the title for the world’s largest lithium reserves, holding nearly 9.2Mt. Australia, Argentina, and China are behind Chile on the list with total reserves of 4.7Mt, 1.9Mt and 1.5Mt.
How is lithium mined?
Lithium is mainly extracted from two sources: ore mining and salt deserts. Australia is the primary source of ore-mined lithium, while lithium from Chile and Argentina comes from salt deserts, also known as salars.
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However, most of the lithium is extracted from mineral-rich brines, which are found beneath the briny lakes of high-altitude flats. The extraction process involves drilling down through the crust and then pumping the brine up to the surface into evaporation pools. The mixture is then left for several months for evaporation. The process creates a salty mud that contains a mixture of potassium, borax, manganese, and lithium salts, which are then further moved to another open-air evaporation pool.
After 12 to 18 months, the mixture is distilled to extract lithium carbonate, the main ingredient used in the manufacturing of LIBs. This extraction method is common in the Lithium Triangle area, a region in the Andes rich in lithium reserves present around the borders of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina.
The method is highly favourable due to its cost-effectiveness in extracting lithium carbonates. However, the process is being criticized often for using too much water.
Why is lithium mining criticized?
The production of one tonne of lithium utilizes nearly 500,000 gallons of water. Mining activities in Salar de Atacama, Chile, have already consumed around 65% of the area's water. The mining activities have further depleted the already-scarce water resources in the region.
Additionally, the toxic chemicals used in the separation process, including hydrochloric acid, can move evaporation pools to the local water table and affect the area's air quality. Increasing drought conditions have also threatened livestock farming, leading to dry-out of vegetation. In various cases, indigenous communities have taken legal actions against lithium projects.