Irony alert: that lithium battery powering up the laptop, smartphone, tablet, or smartwatch that is allowing you to view this article—which is likely the same breed of battery powering your digital camera, your teenager’s vape pen, your electric toothbrush, your father’s pacemaker, and your prized Tesla—though indeed a technological marvel, may also be contaminating your drinking water, eroding natural resources, and harming the environment in ways as copious as its innovative applications.
Truth be told, in a world consumed by climate crisis chatter and threatened by the fallout of fossil fuels, lithium batteries are like the New Coke: marketed as the next best thing, but perhaps too good to be true. In fact, some may say lithium batteries are a prime example of disruptive innovation—a nouveau technology that makes otherwise expensive and sophisticated products more accessible to a broader market – gone bad. This post examines what happens when a disruptive, albeit seemingly benign, innovation adversely (and some may say surreptitiously) disrupts the environment.
What is Lithium and Where is it Found?
Consider yourself warned: flashbacks to high school chemistry or latent trauma associated with the periodic table likely.
Lithium (Li), one of the historically less glamourous elements, has achieved recent fame as the cutting-edge component of a plethora of electronic devices and, more recently, as a panacea to fossil fuel reliance. At its core, lithium is a rare Earth element, best characterized as a soft, silvery-white alkali metal found globally in continental brine water, geothermal waters, oil-gas field brines, and more recently (and less expectedly) in drinking water supplies. Lithium is relatively prolific in nature and extracted to produce lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries. Compared with traditional lead-acid battery technology, lithium-ion batteries charge faster, last longer, and have a higher power density for extended battery life, all in a tidy, more streamlined package. Lithium is also found in air-conditioning, lubricating grease, renewable energy systems, and pharmaceutical products (e.g. lithium carbonate or lithium citrate to treat bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and some blood disorders).
Lithium—A Solution to the Energy Crisis?
For the transportation sector, the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions at 29%, replacing internal combustion engines with electric vehicle (EVs) that run on li-ion batteries appears to be the perfect solution. Likewise, in terms of decarbonizing the power supply sector, lithium batteries are queued to resolve the intermittency of renewables by storing carbon-neutral power off grid in utility-scale battery storage facilities.
How Does Lithium Become a Problem?
Lithium-ion batteries contain less toxic materials than traditional lead-acid batteries, and therefore, are generally considered non-hazardous. While elements of li-ion batteries (nickel, iron, copper, cobalt) are deemed safe for landfills and incinerators, the physical mining and production of lithium is not only resource intensive, but the end-use products (i.e. old laptops, smartphones, tablets) are often unrecycled, resulting in substantial, albeit unrecognized, environmental impacts.
The Unspoken Truth about Carbon Emissions from Lithium Batteries
While EVs are praised for their net-negative impact on carbon emissions, the production of these battery lithium-ion dependent vehicles is carbon intensive. Researchers found that the manufacturing of an EV battery emits 74% more CO2 than producing a conventional car. Proponents of EVs argue that the ends justify the means, or that this issue will resolve itself over time as more energy grids become available around the world.
Environmental and Social Costs of Manufacturing Lithium Batteries
Likewise, the physical mining of lithium is quite resource demanding. The extraction process requires an excess amount of water; approximately 500,000 gallons per metric ton of lithium. The process of lithium mining from salt brines has raised serious concerns of local water basin contamination in South America. In a region that is already one of the driest places on Earth, lithium mining in Chile consumes 65% of the region’s water. Specifically, the mining of lithium in these salt brines has led to the salinisation of freshwater needed by local communities and famers. Salinisation occurs when the water in soils evaporates in high temperatures, drawing salts from the soil to the surface. These salts are deemed toxic to native plants and ultimately make the land unusable.
As further evidence of the lethal aftermath of lithium mining, as far back as 2013, and again in 2016, dead fish have surfaced in the waters of the Liqi River, a river that runs adjacent to a lithium mine in China. Cow and yak carcasses were also found floating downstream of the mine, presumed dead from drinking contaminated water. These incidents were attributed to the drastic increase in lithium mining activity in China over the past decade, including operations run by one of the world’s preeminent suppliers of li-ion batteries.
Environmental damage and toxic pollution are not the only concerns related to the production of components for li-ion batteries. For example, in China, who dominates the production of components for li-ion batteries producing 61% of cathode materials for EVs and is the recognized leader of cell manufacturing with a 73% market share, the profits across the li-ion supply chain are unevenly distributed. Those involved in the mass-production of battery cells and EVs capture a majority of the profits, while those relegated to the mining of lithium receive a mere fraction of the earnings. As the commercial and industrial demand for EVs and new high tech devices increases, so too does the demand for li-ion batteries, and so too does the demand for extraction, particularly in countries with a poor record of prohibiting environmental and social offenses associated with the mining industry.
Who is at Risk?
Everyone, but it is believed that highly industrialized and urban areas represent a greater risk population. Also, at greater risk are poorer, disadvantaged countries, where informal recycling of electric waste likely occurs and where there is less policing of human rights among mining communities. Some believe that the increased lithium levels in urban areas reflect the inefficiency and perhaps inadequacy of waste-water treatment plants in removing lithium from the drinking water supply.
While lithium batteries are hazardous materials subject to the Department of Transportation’s Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR; 49 CFR Parts 171–180), there is no current US EPA level set for lithium in drinking water. That said, lithium has made it onto US EPA’s radar. Specifically, in December 2021, U.S. EPA finalized the Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5) to establish nationwide monitoring for lithium in drinking water.
It’s a paradox of tales. On one hand, lithium-ion batteries provide an opportunity for us to transition away from being fossil-fuel dependent. We see tangible evidence of this monumental shift by the world’s leading car manufacturers and power suppliers to leverage resources in an effort to phase out internal combustion engines and remove carbon emissions from the global energy system in favor of EVs. On the other hand, the proliferation of electric batteries among the automotive and power sectors, not to mention the personal electronic device market, comes with a significant social and environmental price tag.
But, lithium-ion batteries will not fade away as mysteriously as New Coke and will remain a fundamental component of the world’s batteries, particularly given lithium’s global abundance. Undoubtedly, as public awareness of the environmental challenges posed by mass lithium battery production grows, so too will global legislation on the procurement and reuse of natural resources, as well as stronger incentives for the recycling industry. One thing is certain: you need not wield a crystal ball to know that the environmental fallout of lithium batteries will prompt a host of litigation from environmental claims to toxic torts.