Sustainable Metal Production: The Case of Lithium

Metal is an essential and reusable resource with luster, high thermal and electrical conductivity, density, and possesses the ability to be deformed under pressure without splitting. The industry is important because of its linkages with other vital industries such as infrastructure, electrical and electronics, energy, and importantly today – the automotive industry.

As consumer awareness increases around climate change and demand shifts away from the traditional oil and gas industry, the demand for Electrical Vehicles is  growing rapidly. EVs are expected to make up over half of all passenger vehicle sales by 2040. As a result, the demand for metals used in batteries is increasing as well. 

According to Bloomberg, metals like nickel, aluminum, iron, lithium and graphite, are expected to rise substantially in demand by around 9-10 times by 2030. In fact, five times more lithium than is mined currently is going to be necessary to meet global climate targets by 2050, according to the World Bank.

The traditional processes of extraction and production of lithium – ore mining and extraction from salt deserts (salaras)primarily in South America and Australia – involve high usage of water and have significant environmental impacts. These often take place in typically very water-scarce parts of the world, leading to indigenous communities questioning their sustainability as well. 

The demand for lithium with a lower environmental footprint is gaining ground. Car manufacturers including Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen are starting to think about the environmental and social impact of their electric vehicle supply chain. Given the enormous demand projected for the EV battery industry in the coming decade, simply recycling the lithium in circulation will not be enough. 

SQM, a Chilean company that is one of the world’s biggest producers of lithium, and Cornish Lithium and examples of companies going beyond this. They are currently exploring the feasibility of  extracting lithium from geothermal waters, which are found in the UK, Germany and the US as well. Energy is already being produced in these areas, in a process that uses naturally occurring hot salty water to generate electricity from heat within the Earth. In addition to electricity production, these geothermal brines can yield lithium, brought up in the brine solution from thousands of feet underground. Combining these processes could yield domestically produced lithium as well as geothermal energy – in a process that has a negligible carbon footprint and causes no water pollution!

This new technique has the potential to revolutionize the sector. The questions now arise – how long will companies take to adopt this on a larger scale, and will it have unexpected longer term impacts?

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