As we extract lithium from U.S. mines, environmental problems persist
Traditional mining is one of the dirtiest businesses there is. This reality is pressing car manufacturers and companies that embark on the transition to renewable energy sources. As the United States turns to extracting lithium from domestic sources, investors are considering new mines and opportunities to close contracts with battery makers and automakers.
Lithium is used in electric car batteries because it is lightweight, can store a lot of energy, and can be recharged repeatedly. Analysts estimate demand for lithium will increase 10-fold before the end of this decade as Tesla, Volkswagen, General Motors and other automakers introduce dozens of electric models.
Yet, as of this writing, the Biden administration has not budged to promote more environmentally friendly options for mining lithium, such as lithium brine mining instead of surface mines. Federal and state officials will decide which of the 2 methods – or both – will be approved.
It will all depend on the success of environmentalists, tribes and local groups in blocking the projects.
In the first three months of 2021, U.S. lithium miner influencers raised nearly $ 3.5 billion from Wall Street, 7 times the amount raised in the previous 36 months, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Several lithium mines are preparing for production. Right now, workers are preparing to blast and dig a giant pit in northern Nevada, the site of a large-scale lithium mine. The company is called Lithium Americas and has sparked protests from members of a Native American tribe, ranchers and environmental groups. The mine is expected to use billions of gallons of precious groundwater, potentially contaminating part for 300 years, while leaving behind a huge mound of waste.
“Our new demands for clean energy could cause more harm, even if their intention is to do good,” said Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, a group that controls mines for companies. like BMW and Ford Motor. said to New York Times. “We cannot allow this to happen.”
In an environmental impact brief, the Thacker Pass lithium mine project (aka Lithium Americas) indicated that its efforts to extract lithium will have the following consequences, in that the mine:
- include a total of approximately 17,933 acres (mine plan limit of 10,468 acres; exploration plan limit of 7,465 acres) with an estimated total disturbance footprint of approximately 5,695 acres
- reach a depth of about 370 feet
- uses 3,224 gallons per minute
- produce 66,000 tonnes per year of battery-grade lithium carbonate
- mine and process for 41 years, after which it would enter the reclamation and closure period (for a minimum of 5 years)
“Blowing up a mountain is not green no matter how much marketing people put into it,” Max Wilbert told the New York Times. Wilbert lives in a tent at the proposed mine site while 2 lawsuits to block the project make their way through federal courts.
The facilities associated with the proposed action include:
- Development of a surface mine
- Dehydration of the pit
- Construction of two waste rock storage facilities (WRSF)
- Construction and operation of mining facilities to support mining operations
- Construction of a general stock (ROM)
- Construction and operation of an attrition washing process
- Construction of a coarse gangue stock (CGS)
- Construction and operation of a lithium processing plant
- Construction of a sulfuric acid plant for use in a leaching process
- Construction and operation of a clay residue filter stack (CTFS)
- Construction and maintenance of transport and secondary roads
- Construction and maintenance of stormwater management infrastructure, including diversions and sedimentation basins
- Construction of three stocks of growth media (GMS)
- Construction of water supply, transport pipeline, booster pumping stations and storage facilities
- Construction of a 25 kilovolt (kV) transmission line, substations and distribution
- Construction of auxiliary facilities to support the project such as septic tanks, communication towers, guard posts, recovery basins, monitoring wells, a weather station, a fiber optic line, buffer zones and fences
Developers and lawmakers see this Nevada project as an opportunity for the United States to become a leader in the production of these commodities as President Biden acts aggressively to tackle the climate crisis. The Home Office has not yet announced whether it will change its stance on the permit, which it is defending in court.
Other states have plans for lithium production sites: California, Oregon, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina.
Extracting lithium from brine: more environmentally friendly
It is imperative that impacts throughout life cycle stages are adequately addressed, including the extraction of lithium ore. The extraction of lithium from the brine of salt lakes is essential to meet the growing demand for a variety of lithium products. Some researchers argue that electrochemical extraction of lithium from solution is an urgent process due to the abundant reserves of lithium in seawater / brine and the many drawbacks of current technologies, including energy consumption. high, low separation efficiency and environmental damage.
Alternatives to extract lithium from brackish water under California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, about 600 miles south of the Lithium Americas site. At Salton Sea, investors plan to use specially coated beads to extract lithium salt from hot liquid pumped from an aquifer more than 4,000 feet below the surface. The stand-alone systems will be connected to geothermal power plants producing emission-free electricity. And in the process, they hope to generate the income needed to restore the lake, which has been tainted by toxic runoff from area farms for decades.
Standard Lithium recently celebrated a proof of concept project using innovative lithium processing technology – the company claims to have produced lithium carbonate with a purity greater than 99.9% (aka “3 nines”). The process as summarized by the company is as follows: “Direct start-to-finish extraction of lithium from brine in Arkansas; production of purified concentrated intermediates; high purity battery grade lithium carbonate final product conversion.
The companies are also hoping to extract lithium from brine in Arkansas, Nevada, North Dakota, and at least one other location in the United States.
Final thoughts on how to mine lithium: it’s time to turn to renewables
Mining companies are well positioned to implement cost-effective and efficient renewable energy solutions, provided the right steps are taken early on, said Nick Oosthuizen, managing director of energy efficiency consultancy Inframid. Mining review. Because mines are big energy consumers, they “have a constant base load for 24 hours, and if you have a constant base load, it becomes easy to plan a workable renewable energy solution because it is predictable.” and you can plan each load segment accordingly and implement the most efficient solution, ”he explains.
Oosthuizen recognizes that we live in turbulent times, but mining should always focus on planning, which is a critical step in preparing for a smooth implementation phase. Since the mining industry’s transition to renewable energy solutions has been slow – mainly due to the financial implications and the variety of approaches taken by different companies – it is the large mining companies, with their larger balance sheets. solid, which take the lead in energy efficiency. . Oosthuizen says the payback period for investing in renewables is shrinking. He points out that the breakeven point was around 9 years but, in recent times, has been reduced to around 4 years.
The production of raw materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel which are essential to contemporary technologies can destroy land, water, wildlife and humans. Renewable energy in mining is feasible, as is the extraction of lithium brine, which will offset the environmental costs of obtaining lithium for today’s technologies, including electric vehicles.
And isn’t the elephant in the room, in fact, that electric vehicles have a lot less environmental costs over their lifetimes?
NASA photo (public domain)
Disclaimer: The author owns shares of Standard Lithium.
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