Mesmerising photos of the lithium extraction fields in South America emerged recently. Ranging from soft pinks, to calming greens, to striking yellows, the colours of these lithium fields paint an ethereal, almost otherworldly picture.
But the images taken by photographer Tom Hegen are designed to do more than just show off the apparent beauty of lithium fields. In truth, they are a conversation starter. Because while lithium remains an invaluable natural resource key to the manufacturing of rechargeable batteries, controversies surround it.
Electric vehicles are often seen as a more eco-conscious alternative to petrol or diesel cars. But lithium extraction can often be environmentally taxing. So how does it work? And is it truly the best thing we’ve got right now?
Why is the demand for lithium surging?
Lithium-ion currently plays a major role in powering electric vehicles causing a global surge in demand for this highly reactive metal. It’s estimated that demand for the material could treble by 2025 as net-zero targets mean that 2 billion electric vehicles need to be on the road by 2050.
The estimated reserves of lithium globally would be enough to produce just under 2.5 billion batteries. On the face of it, it sounds like we’d be able to meet the 2 billion target with our existing supplies.
However, this ignores the fact that lithium is used for loads of other batteries – your mobile phone and laptop are most likely lithium powered, for example. Other modes of transport like trains, planes, and e-bikes may also use lithium.
And therein lies the problem – even if we ignore the environmental implications of lithium mining, supply may not keep up with demand and shortages are expected.
What’s lithium’s role in powering electric vehicles?
Lithium-ion is the material used to produce rechargeable batteries which power electric vehicles. Lithium is the lightest metal on the periodic table and it’s also extremely energy dense.
This makes it a great material to produce relatively light rechargeable batteries that last a long time. Because of their durability, they can be recharged many times without losing efficiency. They also provide a clean energy source once in use.
But – the problem lies in manufacturing lithium batteries. In fact, figures suggest that the making of lithium-ion batteries could produce 74% more CO2 than the manufacturing of conventional cars.
That said, electric cars still emit fewer greenhouse gases and other emissions than petrol or diesel cars.
How does lithium extraction work?
As demand for lithium grows, so too does the need to access these fields to find new sources of the metal. But what are they and how do they work?
Lithium fields are basically areas where large amounts of lithium can be found in the earth’s crust. The majority of these fields are located in South America, Australia and China, although smaller deposits can be found elsewhere around the world too.
Lithium is mined from these areas by a process called brine harvesting. But this process can be environmentally taxing.
As demand for the metal grows, more and more communities are impacted by extraction activities. The extraction method is water-heavy, causing concerns about access to water in affected communities.
But that’s not all – environmentalists have pointed out the process leads to soil degradation and biodiversity loss as well.
Robust lithium recycling initiatives could greatly reduce these negative impacts. But there are also alternatives to the metal that are currently being explored.
What other alternatives are there?
There are a few alternatives to lithium-ion, but the most promising options are emerging technologies that may take many years to develop.
Sodium-ion, for instance, is a front-runner option that could one day compete with lithium-ion. Compared to lithium, it is an abundant, inexpensive material with far less environmental implications.
It is still an emerging technology, however. Industry experts believe it’ll be several years until sodium-ion can become a viable lithium alternative.
As of right now, sodium-ion batteries do not last as long as lithium-ion batteries which are a more durable alternative. Also, lithium is more energy dense than sodium. This means lithium batteries can remain relatively small and light and travel the same distance as a larger sodium battery which stores less energy.
Engineers are working to tackle the above issues but – as yet – sodium batteries are a bulkier, less durable alternative to lithium.
All things considered, lithium fields remain an important resource for accessing one of the key materials needed for transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards more sustainable sources of energy in the future.
Although lithium may come with its own set of environmental concerns, it is paving the way for sustainable and renewable energy sources and making the manufacture of efficient EVs possible at the moment.
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Whether you have a lithium-ion-powered EV or not, you can still make your driving more eco-conscious. Here at Zixty, we love helping you do just that.
That’s why our instant car insurance policy comes with a unique free optional add-on – Zixty Miles. When you take out a policy with us and enable Zixty Miles, we will plant a tree on your behalf. We will also carbon offset your journeys up to 100 miles a day while you’re a customer with us.
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