Is lithium low carbon?

Salton Sea Lithium

Introduction: Lithium at a Glance

Lithium has a well established supply chain owing to its use as a battery and component in many household electronics. The same properties that made the lithium battery the most efficient one on the market for appliances has proven itself capable of being a reliable energy storage solution at a larger scale. Currently, lithium-ion batteries are a powerful, lightweight and very high energy density battery used to  power electric vehicles and reduce the intermittency of renewable energy. A key element in the race to net-zero, lithium will be heavily relied upon to replace fossil fuels and enable the world to move to a low-carbon future.

How Polluting is Lithium?

There are only two ways of extracting lithium, one requires heavy mining, the other extracts the metal from brine solutions. Both have their drawbacks, but brine extraction has shown promise as a more sustainable option. With new technology, lithium extraction from brine or other solutions can reduce a lot of the major issues in terms of pollution, land degradation and overall carbon emissions. EnergyX has been on the forefront of the development of Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technology, and has shown that its LiTAS™ units are able to work in complex lithium brines. Our company is keen on disrupting the status quo and making lithium as sustainable as possible.

Within a vacuum it is true that lithium extraction can be polluting, yet, in a world actively suffering from the consequences of climate change, there is a need to consider the alternative to lithium: fossil fuels. Without lithium, the decarbonization of the transport sector is not possible, micromobility is far less conceivable, and the speed at which renewable energy is implemented is considerably slower. With no other clear alternative in sight – lithium-ion batteries are the best on the market, and this by some margin – this leaves us with a continued reliance on fossil fuels. As environmental economist Naomi Klein once pointed out, the financial and human cost of inaction grows everyday, action is needed now to reduce carbon emissions. The larger problem that looms however, is a potential lack of lithium reserves.

Lithium is the Future

Lithium is a critical element. It provides a welcome alternative to fossil fuels and supports the development of the low-carbon future that we are trying to create. The versatility of lithium-ion batteries fills a need, and that need has translated to high demand on global markets for the alkali metal. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that the market for renewable energy and lithium batteries could be worth $27 trillion by 2050. On top of this, the Biden Administration unveiled a $5 billion funding plan for EV chargers and their associated infrastructure.

A point that remains to be addressed however, is securing lithium supply chains, especially domestically, as The Hill’s Rafael Bernal highlights, “The geopolitical difficulties and global supply chain issues have made the idea of mining lithium in the United States more attractive, but it wasn’t until Biden’s infrastructure deal added federal funds to the mix that the idea became viable.” The transition from mining commodity to geopolitical chess piece only serves to emphasize the importance that lithium has on the sustainable future we are building. Without lithium, our low-carbon future looks a lot different – and experts agree as to the impact that lithium can have.

Samara Jacal Sanchez and Alina Morozova, ESG Managers at insurance giant Allianz do not see any alternatives to the growth of lithium within the sustainability sector, and point to batteries’ end of life opportunities to recycle and reuse the element as a key consideration going forward. Likewise, Jocelyn Timperley explains in Carbon Brief, that the ‘cradle to grave’ carbon impact of lithium-powered energy and vehicles is lower than fossil fuels. These analyses are bolstered by the latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which call for more energy storage, as well as direct policies outlining the plan of action to implement lithium batteries across the European Union’s electrical grid.

Conclusion: Lithium Is the Best Low-Carbon Option Available

Lithium is the future of sustainable development, and while it may not be a perfect solution, it provides global decision makers with a real opportunity to reduce carbon emissions. There is a limited window for action available to the global community to act on climate. Lithium provides us with our best opportunity to greatly reduce carbon emissions, and new solutions are being developed to reduce the impact of lithium extraction and processing. Lithium is the best low-carbon option available.