How industry‘s lust for lithium could save the planet - or destroy it in the process

Demand for the key mineral used in batteries has soared with the adoption of renewable energy and electric vehicles, but it brings new problems

A deposit of lithium. The worldwide drive to abandon fossil fuels has pushed up the demand for lithium-ion batteries needed to store and run clean power. Getty Images
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Shifting to renewable energy is a catchword in government policy worldwide.

A summer of record-breaking heatwaves across Europe, the catastrophic floods in Pakistan and high energy prices have amplified environmentalists’ already dire warnings.

Yet while the market for solar and wind power is growing, a necessity to the widespread adoption of these clean energy sources is the ability to store and transfer the power, particularly when weather conditions are not favourable.

Lithium-ion batteries are at the heart of the renewables revolution, particularly the transfer to electric vehicles (EVs). But the rare minerals needed to make them are in demand and soaring in price. There is also a very limited supply.

While China dominates in materials refinement and battery production, Australia is the world’s biggest miner of lithium, producing 55,000 tonnes in 2021, and Chile has the world’s largest known lithium reserves at eight million tonnes.

The UK, like the EU, is totally reliant on importing lithium and with sales of new petrol and diesel cars banned in the UK by 2030, there is an accelerated urgency to get hold of what the EU has now classified a "critical mineral".

Lithium demand is projected to go up from 500,000 metric tonnes globally in 2021 to about three million to four million metric tonnes in 2030.

After a nearly 500 per cent increase in price between January 2021 and January 2022, the financial incentives of lithium production continue to soar, reaching more than $78,000 per tonne in 2022 from $6,000 per tonne in 2020.

A visitors holds lithium concentrate for a photograph at a Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (SQM) lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat in the Atacama Desert, Chile, on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. Almost three-quarters of the world’s lithium raw materials come from mines in Australia or briny lakes in Chile, giving them leverage with customers scrambling to tie-up supplies. The mining nations hope to bring refining and manufacturing plants that could help kickstart domestic technology industries. Photographer: Cristobal Olivares/Bloomberg

The run on this critical metal has led to a boom in lithium mining exploration around the world that is conflictingly at once promising and ominous for environmentalists.

Potentially viable lithium projects are popping up across the EU in Portugal, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, Finland and Austria.

In the UK, which will need 75,000 tonnes of lithium by 2030, a race to grab what lithium deposits exist is also under way.

Will Cornwall's mining history be revived by the hunt for lithium?

Founder of Cornish Lithium, Jeremy Wrathall, says it was the worries his young son had over the future of the planet that pushed the former investment banker into starting the mining company in Cornwall, one of England’s traditional mining heartlands in the south-west county.

“I feel quite passionately about electric vehicles and the environment and global warming,” the chief executive told The National.

“I was walking to work one day thinking about electric cars and metals that go into them and I thought, I wonder if there's anything that's been forgotten about in the UK that would have lithium.”

A mining engineer by training, Wrathall started looking at old mining maps and records and enjoyed his eureka moment ― the tourist county of Cornwall.

It has a history of mining dating from the Bronze Age and sits on one of the most lithium-enriched bodies of granite in the world. Lithium-bearing brine was first discovered in Cornwall in 1864 by an academic at King’s College London, after investigating the hot springs in Cornish mines.

A year after Wrathall founded the company in 2016, he had an auspicious meeting with a retired member of the British Geological Survey who told him there used to be a lithium mine in Trelavour, helpfully one of the areas where he had acquired mining rights.

Backed by the UK government's Getting Building Fund, the company wants to develop a lithium industry in Cornwall by extracting the mineral from both rock and geothermal waters.

Cornish Lithium is one of two local companies ― the other being British Lithium ― that see the “white gold” rush as an opportunity to revive a local mining industry that waned years ago as well as supply the UK’s demand for the batteries needed to push ahead with net zero.

“The UK alone will need nearly a quarter of what was the entire global market only a few years ago,” Wrathall says.

Exploratory drilling by Cornish Lithium at a former mine in Redruth, Cornwall. As the global vehicle industry accelerates production of electric cars, one British company is hoping to cash in by mining lithium needed to make rechargeable batteries that power the vehicles.  AFP

“This element is the gateway to a low carbon zero carbon future. Without lithium, it's fair to say we can't have electric cars."

China’s control of 80 per cent of the lithium refining capability globally makes supply “a really serious problem, but also an opportunity”, Wrathall says.

The company’s Trelavour hard-rock lithium project will extract the mineral from an open pit mine that was formerly used to source china clay before moving on to processing facilities near by.

According to their recently completed scoping study, the mine will yield 25 million tonnes a year, with a 20-year mine life producing an average of 8,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide a year.

After an initial £9 million ($10.44 million), Tech investment company TechMet recently exercised its option to invest a further £9 million in Cornish Lithium.

The hamlet of United Downs is Cornish Lithium’s flagship exploration site for lithium-enriched geothermal waters.

Naturally fractured rocks over hundreds of millions of years created waters with high levels of lithium, which can be pumped up through a drill hole “a bit like a straw” and then filtered “similar to a Brita water” system.

The company hopes that using geothermal energy to power the extraction of the mineral from granite will make their project a zero-carbon process.

Burnishing sustainability credentials on a project to further renewable energy may not seem like an obvious necessity but mining has an unenviable reputation for creating fatal disasters and destroying the environment, and "critical minerals" are no exception.

Environmental saviour or sinner?

Resource extraction will always cause some harm to the planet because of the effect on soil degradation, water shortages, biodiversity loss, damage to ecosystem functions and an increase in global warming.

It takes more than two million litres of water to extract a tonne of lithium and, because lithium mining also includes significant elements, which are part of the overall geological mineral complex, it has the potential to create toxicity.

As the world scrambles to mine the minerals needed to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, a much-vaunted solution may become part of the problem.

This year the Portuguese government approved six sites for lithium exploration but in the north of the EU country, plans for an open-pit lithium mine in an area of outstanding natural beauty and heritage has put residents of Covas do Barroso at loggerheads with the companies and politicians supporting the project.

Protests and pamphlets that say "Yes to life, no to the mine" have been going on for years and gained intensity this summer as the country’s exceptional drought intensified the criticism of lithium extraction.

Savannah, the London-based mining company, which has mineral rights in the area, has submitted plans to open a new lithium mine on an existing 30-year mining lease area in the Barroso region, which was first awarded in 2006.

Savannah expects to produce about 5,000 tonnes of lithium, which would be enough to produce about 500,000 vehicle battery packs a year.

In a statement sent to The National, chief executive of Savannah Resources, Dale Ferguson, called the Barroso project "a hugely significant project for Europe" that had the potential "to deliver security of supply" and "strategic autonomy in lithium".

The company confirmed that development had been pushed back owing to extensions to the project’s environmental approval process, but said the company was "currently working on the improvements suggested by the Portuguese environmental regulator" and expected approvals to come in "no later than March 2023".

Other European projects have also stalled in the face of mounting public opposition. In Serbia, Rio Tinto's proposed $2.4 billion Jadar lithium mine, which would have become the largest lithium mine in Europe, was cancelled by the government after huge protests against it.

Albemarle, a top lithium producer in Germany, says it might shut down its plant in Germany if the metal used in electric vehicle batteries is declared a hazardous material by the European Union, a classification the European Commission is currently assessing.

How Portugal’s lithium reserves could answer the EU’s supply problem

Portugal already has Europe's largest lithium industry, mining about 900 tonnes in 2020, but according to Savannah, the EU country has 60,000 tonnes of known lithium reserves. And at today’s prices, it would be an economic windfall and a welcome EU supplier in a larger monopolised market.

Compared with the world’s largest producers ― Chile and Australia ― who produce about 20,000 tonnes and 40,000 tonnes a year respectively, Portugal’s deposits are paltry, but in today’s political climate, ever more critical.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine increases the urgency to move away from fossil fuels and monopolised supplies of energy, mining lithium in Portugal would expand EU’s power sources and help achieve its New Green Deal goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050.

Members of Portuguese anti-mining civic movements and foreign partners demonstrate in opposition to the Portuguese government's mining development project.

EU officials estimate that to achieve climate neutrality by mid-century, the bloc will require 18 times more lithium than it currently uses by 2030 and almost 60 times more by 2050.

But questions abound over whether the economic and environmental benefits are worth the potential destruction of nature and livelihoods.

The Portuguese environment NGO, Zero, has found itself “in the middle of discussions” between both sides.

“We do believe that for the decarbonisation of our energy system, and particularly on transportation, we do need to use lithium for now,” Zero’s president, Francisco Ferreira, told The National from Portugal.

“But at the same time, we are very aware of the impact that this industry has on the environment and we have to consider how to go ahead with mining in certain areas in Portugal in a limited way, in the right places.”

The independent agency has reviewed environmental impact assessments on areas earmarked for mining and has been dismayed to find protected nature reserves under consideration.

The Portuguese government has since said that protected areas would be excluded from mining rights but that may be too late for those areas already under licence, like Barroso.

An agriculture world heritage site, Ferreira says there are technical concerns about how an 800-metre quarry so close to a populated village will “put the population and environment in risk of a disaster”.

Let’s not 'throw the baby out with the bathwater'

According to Stephan Singer of Climate Action Network International (Can), the justified criticism of mining for minerals should not result in “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.

“We all know that we need to stay below 1.5ºC [above pre-industrial levels] and we cannot do that without significant amount of new mineral supply,” Can's lead on climate science and global energy policy told The National.

That includes cobalt, another key component in batteries with even more dubious mining practices linked to human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where most of the world’s supply of the mineral comes from.

Wrathall says Cornwall’s industrial mining history gives the company a “huge advantage” over others who are looking into previously untapped territory.

“If you look at that particular region of Cornwall from a satellite, you'll see huge open pit mines there already for china clay and people understand that type of mining there. Most of the employment in the region is from mining, it's nothing new. So that gives us a huge advantage. If we were to say we're going to start mining a brand new open pit mining cobalt, forget it.”

While it supports a rapid move to electrification and 100 per cent renewable energy, Can’s rallying cry is for the adoption of best practices in mining and for it to be supported by “strong energy efficiency and conservation to limit the amount of energy we use”.

Independent certifying bodies like the European Raw Materials Alliance can help companies navigate the pitfalls, Singer suggests.

“It will help a lot to avoid human rights violations, it will help a lot to reduce the impact on the environment and the impact on the local communities. It’s not perfect, but will help to reduce the damage significantly,” he says.

“Circular economies” that encourage more recycling and reusing of products, as well as minerals where possible, is another way to mitigate unsustainable mining.

The other is research and development.

Scientists around the world are developing new technologies to replace rare and expensive cobalt and lithium with cheap and abundant magnesium, aluminium and sulphur.

As investigations and knowhow develop, the race to hunt lithium and cobalt may be overtaken by a newer and better discovery that would leave mining concerns better off and not “not putting all their eggs in the same basket”, Ferreira says.

You don't want to just make huge bets on lithium and then within a couple of years, we have other possibilities that have less environmental impact.”

Whatever the next big environmental salve is, Singer is clear that the search for a sustainable and least harmful transition to clean energy is a “long-term journey”.

“We don't have everything ready yet. We work on batteries but we need to work on different technologies, we need to replace some of the materials from before and to have recycling economy in parallel. Yes, it's a challenge but otherwise the mining activities would be just not only unsustainable, they will be murderous.”

Without a leap forward in technology, it seems there will continue to be conflict in the drive to find a cleaner future.

Updated: September 09, 2022, 6:02 PM
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