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The Problem with Current Lithium Extraction Methods

Landscape damaged by open-air mining
Introduction: Lithium and the Environment

When you look over the immense salt flats of Chile or the heights of the Tibetan landscape, you are struck with awe as to how the panorama unfolds before you. Yet, these beautifully remote parts of the world are under threat from lithium extraction. In 2016, the Liqi River flowing to the east of the Tibetan plateau was contaminated with toxic chemicals from a mine site up-river, killing fish and thoroughly damaging the local ecosystem. Meanwhile in Chile, the Salar de Atacama has seen 65% of the region’s water consumed for mining procedures, causing havoc for farmers and ranchers who live in the area.

In both cases, lithium extraction operations were directly responsible. Demand for the silvery metal has increased worldwide as governments seek to embrace a low-carbon future that features more renewable energy, smart technology and a more circular economic model. Lithium, already used in household and personal appliance batteries, can be scaled up to be used in electric vehicles (EVs) or large-scale energy storage units. Expected to be a critical element in the global shift towards sustainable development, how can we justify the damage current lithium extraction methods have on the environment?

The Damaging Status Quo of Lithium Extraction

There are currently two main ways of acquiring lithium: ore mining and brine extraction. The former follows traditional mining processes, requiring geological surveys and exploration prior to using heavy machinery to remove soil and find lithium-rich deposits within hard rock. These actions alone can already scar environments and disrupt local ecology, however, processing these deposits also creates issues. Extracting lithium from hard rock requires time and money-intensive techniques that need heavy metals and water resources. Leaks, tailing dam failures or other forms of seepages can lead to contamination of waterways – such as what happened with the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine in Tibet.

Brine extraction, on the other hand, is less geologically intensive but requires vast amounts of water. A typical brine extraction operation involves pumping lithium brine to the surface to create vast pools that are then mixed with chemicals to help separate the metal from the liquid. Following this, the pools are left to evaporate and the lithium can be easily collected. This form of lithium extraction has been linked to chemical infiltrations within groundwater and can also lead to reduced water availability, as seen in the Salar de Atacama. Furthermore, brine extraction is inefficient on top of being time-consuming, with lithium yields varying between brine concentrations and the inability to extract high amounts of the metal from the liquid itself.

When weighing up local socioeconomic impacts of current lithium mining methods against both local economic, and global developmental benefits, questions swirl as to how a new era in sustainability should rely on such unsustainable practices. As the Harvard International Review’s Samar Ahmad puts it, “Saving the planet, however, should not come at the cost of destroying fragile ecosystems. Lithium mining cannot be considered a long-term or just solution if it contributes to water depletion and air pollution, which have severe and disparate impacts for local communities that are already struggling in many ways to make ends meet.”

Direct Lithium Extraction: Disrupting the Market 

A 2021 report by Roskill shows that lithium carbonate demand could rise above two million tonnes by 2030 – over four times the amount produced in 2020. When considering the drawbacks that lithium mining poses, the world seems to be caught in a conundrum. However, there is a solution. While the drawbacks posed by current lithium extraction methods have served as a damper for lithium-based research and development, but, coupled with a continually rising demand for lithium, it has helped create a need for more sustainable lithium mining. Technological development and innovation has led companies like EnergyX to improve and refine how lithium extraction is carried out, while also thoroughly reducing the environmental impact associated with it.

Direct lithium extraction (DLE) sits as the core of this sustainable mining revolution. EnergyX’s patented LiTAS technology can extract lithium from brine resources using little to no water, and does not require heavy metals or chemical additives. Additionally, it yields a much higher amount of lithium than both traditional ore and brine extraction methods currently being used, all the while being more time efficient and less carbon intensive. One of several DLE methods currently on the market, EnergyX’s and its LiTAS system are currently one of three companies jockeying for position to help Bolivia develop a sustainable, socially responsible lithium mining-based economy. Despite being up against Chinese and Russian government-funded lithium extraction companies, EnergyX has held strong as a beacon for U.S. private entrepreneurship.

Centered around the development of lithium extraction operations at the world’s largest lithium deposit, Salar de Uyuni, the Bolivian government like EnergyX, is seeking to disrupt the market by providing a lithium extraction opportunity that is far more sustainable than that afforded by the current status quo. With global governments pushing for more action to curb carbon emissions through a fast transition towards renewable energy and EVs, lithium is guaranteed to have an important role. That sweeping change is also coming for the current lithium extraction methods in use – and those capable of replacing them with more sustainable practices are certain to reshape how the sector operates within this new era of human development.

Conclusion: Sustainability and Responsible Mining

While lithium extraction methods haven’t changed much since their initial inception, newer, less invasive forms of mining like DLE are starting to break into the market. Not only could these new technologies help reduce the environmental damage caused by current practices, but it would come at a time when demand for lithium is skyrocketing. Experts have often wondered if the environment came at the cost of development, especially now as efforts ramp up to transition the world towards a sustainable future – but why not meld the best of both worlds?

We know lithium extraction and associated operations are creating environmental, social, and economic pressures around the world. With extraction methods like DLE, not only are these issues reduced, but they also improve yield and efficiency within the system. Companies like EnergyX are at the forefront of engineering, science, and technology, working towards finding sustainable solutions for today, and tomorrow’s problems. Innovation and breakthroughs in technology have often preceded major steps in human development – and the mining sector is due for a shakeup.