How “Green” is Lithium?

17 04 2016

Originally published on the KITCO website in 2014….. interesting how this makes no mention of NiFe batteries, they are simply ‘under the radar’……


The market for battery electric and hybrid vehicles is growing slowly but steadily – from 0.4% in 2012 to 0.6% in 2013 and 0.7% in 2014 (year-to-date) in the United States alone.

Consumers buy these vehicles despite lower gas prices out of a growing conscience and concern for the environment. With this strong attraction to alternative energy, grows the demand for lithium, which is predominantly mined and imported from countries like Bolivia, Chile, China and Argentina.

Within the U.S., only Nevada, future home of Tesla’s new “Gigafactory” for batteries, produces lithium. However, the overall ecological impact of lithium ion batteries remains somewhat unclear, as does the “well-to-wheel” effort and cost to recharge such batteries.

To fully grasp the relevance and environmental impact of lithium it is important to note that lithium ion batteries are also found in most mobile phones, laptop computers, wearable electronics and almost anything else powered by rechargeable batteries.

Dozens of reports are available on the ecological impact of lithium mining. Unfortunately, many of them are influenced by the perspective of the organizations or authors releasing them. Reducing the available information to studies carried out by government bodies and research institutes around the world, a picture emerges nonetheless:

  • Elemental lithium is flammable and very reactive. In nature, lithium occurs in compounded forms such as lithium carbonate requiring chemical processing to be made usable.
  • Lithium is typically found in salt flats in areas where water is scarce. The mining process of lithium uses large amounts of water. Therefore, on top of water contamination as a result of its use, depletion or transportation costs are issues to be dealt with. Depletion results in less available water for local populations, flora and fauna.
  • Toxic chemicals are used for leaching purposes, chemicals requiring waste treatment. There are widespread concerns of improper handling and spills, like in other mining operations around the world.
  • The recovery rate of lithium ion batteries, even in first world countries, is in the single digit percent range. Most batteries end up in landfill.
  • In a 2013 report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) points out that nickel and cobalt, both also used in the production of lithium ion batteries, represent significant additional environmental risks.

A 2012 study titled “Science for Environment Policy” published by the European Union compares lithium ion batteries to other types of batteries available (lead-acid, nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal-hydride and sodium sulphur). It concludes that lithium ion batteries have the largest impact on metal depletion, suggesting that recycling is complicated. Lithium ion batteries are also, together with nickel-metal-hydride batteries, the most energy consuming technologies using the equivalent of 1.6kg of oil per kg of battery produced. They also ranked the worst in greenhouse gas emissions with up to 12.5kg of CO2 equivalent emitted per kg of battery. The authors do point out that “…for a full understanding of life cycle impacts, further aspects of battery use need to be considered, such as length of usage, performance at different temperatures, and ability to discharge quickly.”

Technology will of course improve, lithium supplies will be sufficient for the foreseeable future, and recycling rates will climb. Other issues like the migration of aging cars and electronic devices to countries with less developed infrastructures will, however, remain. As will the reality of lithium mining and processing. It is therefore conceivable that new battery technologies (sea water batteries or the nano-flowcell, for instance) will gain more importance in years to come, as will hydrogen fuel cells.

We will report about the pros and cons of each of these alternatives in future issues of Tech Metals Insider.

Bodo Albrecht,




4 responses

17 04 2016

Such a huge gulf between “Best Practice” and how thing are actually done, but even best practice has environmental consequences.

17 04 2016

I am currently off the grid on flooded Lead ACids. I I looking at Redflow (an Aussie company based in Brisbane), they make a Zinc Flow battery for residential/commercial operations. They looks like they offer plenty of potential and are completely recyclable.

18 04 2016

It’s easy to beat-up on batteries, and I’m the first to concede their limitations, but it’s also easy to forget just how much power is used in transport (which is where I think lithium-ion batteries are best used). I wrote about it in the context of an ebike and conclude that even when considering the embodied energy in “consumed” in a journey (for an ebike battery, I allowed 1/500 of the total manufacturing cost — a conservative estimate that makes the battery look worse than it likely will be) an ebike trounces a motor car by a factor of 50:

Cheers, Angus

19 04 2016

Lithium batteries have their place….. as in transport as you say, because they are lightweight and more energy dense than others. However, I am not at all convinced that the current transport sector can be replaced by electric transport to more than 10% of the current numbers, at best. Of all the electric vehicles available now, eBikes are by far the best solution. My son rides his everywhere in hilly Brisbane where he lives and swears by it!

My biggest gripe is the way Lithium is being taken up for household battery storage. Houses don’t care how big and heavy batteries are, you can always find room for them, and using this technology is actually a waste of Lithium. But let’s not get in the way of cool advertising/marketing and some billionaire’s access to even more wealth……

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