Just what are lithium-ion batteries (LIBs), why are they important, and what are they best used for? Where does lithium come from, and how is it mined? Does that mining cause the kinds of problems often associated with mining of fossil fuel energy? Is there enough lithium available to meet the increasing needs of a “green economy”? What most influences the costs associated with lithium? Read on for answers to these and related questions.
For a range of information on these issues related to lithium, you can start with energy-guru David Roberts’ Volts podcasts and transcripts. Here is a collection of his 2021 series on the subject; the first episode can stand alone as a primer. As he explains, “There’s a reason why, in 2019, the three chemists behind the initial development of lithium-ion technology won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. LIBs boast incredibly high energy density and specific energy, which is to say, they cram lots of oomph into a small, lightweight package, and they are capable of cycling many more times than their predecessors.”
Some carbon-fuel proponents like to point out that minerals like lithium have environmental costs. Veteran climate journalist Dana Nuccitelli, a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections, offers a thorough comparison of those costs for various renewable and fossil fuel energy technologies in this blog for Citizens’ Climate Lobby: “Are clean technologies and renewable energies better for the environment than fossil fuels?” “In general,” Nucccitelli writes, “the answer is yes. Clean technologies will have a non-zero impact, but they will be much smaller than the dirty fossil fuel status quo.” Nuccitelli lays out important contexts for the stories below about lithium mining.
Because so many people are working on ways to improve lithium-ion batteries, there is regular news of intriguing possibilities. Here’s one recent example: “Could this fast-charging high-energy battery spark the EV era?” (Prachi Patel, Anthropocene Magazine).
On lithium mining, these pieces are informative beyond their immediate topics:
- Concerning Nevada sites that are important for US lithium production but harmful to Native American cultural and land rights, read this story by Oliver Milman in The Guardian.
- For two related pieces, see this blog post looking at other places mineral reserves impinge on Native lands, and this sample document from an indigenous group resisting one Nevada mine.
- Patrick Whittle touches on other potential US sources for the AP news service and for public broadcasting’s PBS here.
- This interesting piece from Car Life Nation focuses on two potentially important (and relatively uncomplicated?) lithium sites, California’s Salton Sea and the Snow Lake mine in northern Manitoba.
- The reliably thorough Fred Pearce has a very good article at Yale e360 on the lithium boom and its problematic environmental and justice effects in the high Andes, here.
- Finally, see this recent story from the Financial Times, “Carmakers take control of supply sourcing as battery costs rise” (Harry Dempsey).