The lithium industry must be modernized to meet climate goals

lithium is critical to climate change

Introduction: Lithium key to climate action

The lithium industry needs to scale up its production efforts significantly if we are to meet climate goals. A new report by Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, one of the lithium industry’s biggest information and analysis providers, highlighted that to meet global demand the lithium sector will need to increase production 20-fold by 2050. This comes amidst worries that current infrastructure and technology is unable to meet short-term needs, with a supply deficit expected by 2027 should the sector be too slow to adapt. Lithium is critical to meeting global net zero goals as well as provide both energy security and low-carbon transportation – any disruption of the supply chain can have serious impacts on climate action.

How much lithium is needed to meet climate goals?

Roughly 2.9 million tonnes of Lithium Carbonate Equivalent (LCE) will be needed in the coming decade, and from 2050 onwards 11.2 million tonnes of LCE will be needed yearly for battery storage units. While there are enough lithium reserves globally to meet demand, the sector simply does not have the capacity to produce enough of it in its current state. “The long term path for lithium is set, yet the supply chain scaling challenge has just begun,” explains Simon Moores, CEO of Benchmark, “What this data shows is that we are at just the beginning of a generational challenge, not one that’s going to be solved in the 2020s.”

Moores’ analysis is corroborated by Mining Technology’s Zachary Skidmore, who notes that investment in lithium projects are concentrated on electric vehicles manufacturing and related services rather than actual mineral production. “The global lithium mining market is expected to grow from $3.33bn in 2020 to $6.37bn by 2030. However […] lithium is receiving less funding than required, risking a structural deficit in the future.” This leaves the industry in limbo and highlights the lack of modernization within the lithium mining sector. The world’s net zero commitments rely on a steady source of lithium, and a bottleneck – especially one that could be easily addressed – will have lasting repercussions on climate action.

An industry in need of rapid modernization

Current brine infrastructure and extraction methodologies are outdated and unsustainable. The lithium industry has not altered its operations in a long time, and has not felt the need to – prior to the rise of battery storage for EVs and renewable energy, lithium was used mostly for household electronics. Traditional methods using evaporation ponds and ore mining provided enough supply to meet demand, but were balanced out by the long-standing environmental issues tied to the industry. In one way, this is a microcosm of climate change, but the shift to sustainability has provided the lithium industry to reinvent itself and work towards providing critical elements while minimizing the impact it has on local biodiversity.

Luckily, technology has already been developed that meets these criteria, and the widespread use of it could help reduce the supply deficit, as Skidmore describes, “Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) is expected to boost existing capacities via increased recoveries and lower operating costs, while also improving the sustainability aspects.” EnergyX’s own DLE technology highlighted this during field trials, recovering 94% of brine-based lithium within several days using no chemicals or added water, compared to an industry average of 30% recovery over several months using heavy metals and large quantities of freshwater.

Conclusion: Sustainable lithium technology is key

Confronted with a lithium production deficit, aging infrastructure incapable of meeting demands, and calls for added sustainability throughout the supply chain, the lithium industry needs to modernize. Embracing more sustainable lithium extraction methods like DLE will solve multiple problems in one go. In tandem, with battery recycling, this could provide the lithium needed to drive global sustainability goals. For countries with brine-based lithium deposits, such as Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, the United Kingdom and the United States, this provides them with an opportunity to develop green jobs, bolster their economies, and become leaders in sustainable lithium.