Essential Lithium & Essential Water

Brine pools at the Soquimich lithium mine on a salt flat in northern Chile. IVAN ALVARADO / REUTERS VIA ALAMY

On my one visit to the Atacama desert in 2009 I had a feeling unlike any I had previously experienced, and it was attributed to the lithium. There is so much, you can feel it. And to put it simply, it feels good. I knew it was being mined, but I assumed it was primarily for pharmaceutical use; no clue it would become so important for batteries. And this set up a sort of zero-sum game, which Fred Pearce helps to understand:

The Lithium Triangle region. YALE ENVIRONMENT 360

Why the Rush to Mine Lithium Could Dry Up the High Andes

The demand for lithium for EV batteries is driving a mining boom in an arid Andes region of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, home to half the world’s reserves. Hydrologists are warning the mines could drain vital ecosystems and deprive Indigenous communities of precious water.

What environmental price should the world be willing to pay for the metals needed to switch to electric vehicles? The question is being asked urgently in South America where there are growing fears that what is good for the global climate may be a disaster for some of the world’s rarest and most precious ecosystems — salt flats, wetlands, grazing pastures, and flamingo lakes high in the Andean mountains.

This remote region straddling the borders between Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile has become known as the Lithium Triangle, because it is the sudden focus of a global rush for the metal vital in making lithium-ion batteries to decarbonize the world’s automobiles. Demand for lithium is predicted to quadruple by 2030 to 2.4 million metric tons annually, and in anticipation, prices on world markets have risen close to tenfold in the past year.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, more than half of the world’s lithium reserves are dissolved in ancient underground water within the Lithium Triangle. Global mining conglomerates are competing to grab the metal by pumping that water to the surface and evaporating it in the sun to concentrate the lithium carbonate that it contains.

Lithium is the lightest of all metals. Soft and malleable with a high capacity to store energy, it is ideal material to make lightweight, rechargeable batteries. Demand for the metal for lithium-ion batteries to power mobile devices has risen strongly for three decades. But while mobile-phone batteries require just a tenth of an ounce of lithium carbonate, a typical electric-car battery requires 130 pounds — around 20,000 times as much.

With the world’s car fleets transitioning to electric propulsion, Argentina, with reserves of up to 60 million metric tons, according to government estimates, is well-positioned to profit from the lithium rush. Lax regulation and low taxes make its part of the Lithium Triangle — in the northwestern provinces of Jujuy, Salta, and Catamarca — “especially attractive for foreign investors,” according to Lucas Gonzalez of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), a government agency in Buenos Aires. The country could soon become the world’s second-largest lithium producer, after Australia, and the largest producer from evaporative mining.

But every ton of lithium carbonate extracted from underground using this cheap, low-tech method typically dissipates into the air about half a million gallons of water that is vital to the arid High Andes. The extraction lowers water tables, and because freshwater often sits on top of salty water, this has the potential to dry up the lakes, wetlands, springs, and rivers that flourish where the underground water reaches the surface…

Read the whole story here.

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