• Lithium Batteries
  • Mining
  • EVs

Lithium Mining: A New Demand for Sustainability

Maria Chavez
Oct 31, 2019

Lithium Batteries

As demand for lithium ion battery technology grows, stakeholders are studying methods of extracting lithium and identifying breakthroughs and environmental challenges with the technology. Traditional methods of lithium mining often involve brine extraction of hard rock mining. Through brine extraction, material is pumped from deposits to the surface and taken to evaporation ponds, from which water is removed from the lithium content over the course of months or years. Because lithium is usually mixed with other salts, the evaporation process can be inefficient at extracting large percent yields of lithium. Lithium extraction can also have negative environmental consequences because the process is so water intensive (causing water depletion and pollution in already water-scarce areas). In addition, large areas of land are required to house the evaporation ponds. 

New Technologies Are Disrupting Traditional Mineral Extraction Methods

EnergyX, a company that focuses on sustainable energy solutions, aims to develop a method of lithium extraction that increases yield and reduces extraction time. The company claims that its LiTAS technology allows for an increase of 40%-60% in extraction rate, compared to traditional methods, with a timeframe of days rather than years. The foundation for the technology acts similar to a sieve made from metal-organic frameworks, which accurately separates lithium from other metal ions. In addition to increased efficiency, the LiTAS technology is also expected to cut down the cost of lithium and reduce the amount of natural land area required for the extraction process. 

Solvay, a Belgian chemical company, has a partnership with Tenova Advanced Technologies and is developing a process to extract lithium salts and later reinject the lithium-free water back into its source, saving water and reducing negative environmental effects. Tenova develops metals and mining solutions for the industrial sector and specializes in solvent extraction using sustainable methods. 

Resurgence of Lithium Mining in North America

Transformative methods for lithium extraction might come at a pivotal time for mineral production. Most of the world’s lithium deposits are mined from salt ponds in the Atacama Desert (in Argentina and Chile), and China, but recently the US has made a push to boost production domestically. Piedmont Lithium in North Carolina has applied for permits for strip mining operations at a site near Charlotte, an area which used to be popular for lithium resources in the 1980s. 

Other lithium projects are being advanced in Utah, California, and Arkansas. According to the US Geological Survey, the US has about 13% of the world’s identified lithium resources, though it only produced around 2% in 2018. This shift to increase production is in part due to a recent Executive Order by President Trump in 2017 to reduce US dependence of critical minerals (including lithium) on foreign sources, especially China. China has the majority of the world’s lithium processing facilities. 

A new shift in production could trigger a number of new sites around parts of the world, and with the growing demand for EVs, production is not likely to slow down any time soon. This change also offers an opportunity to avoid destructive processes and implement sustainable methods of lithium production. Exploring new ways to meet lithium demand requires a large investment into R&D, as many of these patents and proposals are still in their infancy. Still, if expectations are met, both consumers and producers benefit from the lower costs, increased efficiency, and shared goal of reducing negative effects to the environment through land conservation and reduced emissions as a result of EV adoption.