The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction

8 08 2018

Here’s a thoroughly modern riddle: what links the battery in your smartphone with a dead yak floating down a Tibetan river? The answer is lithium – the reactive alkali metal that powers our phones, tablets, laptops and electric cars.

In May 2016, hundreds of protestors threw dead fish onto the streets of Tagong, a town on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. They had plucked them from the waters of the Liqi river, where a toxic chemical leak from the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine had wreaked havoc with the local ecosystem.

There are pictures of masses of dead fish on the surface of the stream. Some eyewitnesses reported seeing cow and yak carcasses floating downstream, dead from drinking contaminated water. It was the third such incident in the space of seven years in an area which has seen a sharp rise in mining activity, including operations run by BYD, the world’ biggest supplier of lithium-ion batteries for smartphones and electric cars. After the second incident, in 2013, officials closed the mine, but when it reopened in April 2016, the fish started dying again.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Workers drill though the crust of the world’s biggest salt flat with large rigs. They are aiming for the brine underneath swathes of magnesium and potassium in the hope of finding lithium-rich spots. Since the 2000s, most of the world’s lithium has been extracted this way, rather than using mineral ore sources such as spodumene, petalite and lepidolite

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Lithium-ion batteries are a crucial component of efforts to clean up the planet. The battery of a Tesla Model S has about 12 kilograms of lithium in it, while grid storage solutions that will help balance renewable energy would need much more.

Demand for lithium is increasing exponentially, and it doubled in price between 2016 and 2018. According to consultancy Cairn Energy Research Advisors, the lithium ion industry is expected to grow from 100 gigawatt hours (GWh) of annual production in 2017, to almost 800 GWhs in 2027.

William Adams, head of research at Metal Bulletin, says the current spike in demand can be traced back to 2015, when the Chinese government announced a huge push towards electric vehicles in its 13th Five Year Plan. That has led to a massive rise in the number of projects to extract lithium, and there are “hundreds more in the pipeline,” says Adams.

But there’s a problem. As the world scrambles to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, the environmental impact of finding all the lithium required to enable that transformation could become a serious issue in its own right. “One of the biggest environmental problems caused by our endless hunger for the latest and smartest devices is a growing mineral crisis, particularly those needed to make our batteries,” says Christina Valimaki an analyst at Elsevier.

Tahua, Bolivia. Salt miners load a truck with lithium-rich salt. The ground beneath Bolivia’s salt flats are thought to contain the world’s largest reserves of the metal. (The Bolivian Andes may contain 70 per cent of the planet’s lithium.) Many analysts argue that extracting lithium from brine is more environmentally friendly than from rock. However, as demand increases, companies might resort to removing lithium from the brine by heating it up, which is more energy intensive.

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

In South America, the biggest problem is water. The continent’s Lithium Triangle, which covers parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, holds more than half the world’s supply of the metal beneath its otherworldly salt flats. It’s also one of the driest places on earth. That’s a real issue, because to extract lithium, miners start by drilling a hole in the salt flats and pumping salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface.

Then they leave it to evaporate for months at a time, first creating a mixture of manganese, potassium, borax and lithium salts which is then filtered and placed into another evaporation pool, and so on. After between 12 and 18 months, the mixture has been filtered enough that lithium carbonate – white gold – can be extracted.

It’s a relatively cheap and effective process, but it uses a lot of water – approximately 500,000 gallons per tonne of lithium. In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65 per cent of the region’s water. That is having a big impact on local farmers – who grow quinoa and herd llamas – in an area where some communities already have to get water driven in from elsewhere.

There’s also the potential – as occurred in Tibet – for toxic chemicals to leak from the evaporation pools into the water supply. These include chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, which are used in the processing of lithium into a form that can be sold, as well as those waste products that are filtered out of the brine at each stage. In Australia and North America, lithium is mined from rock using more traditional methods, but still requires the use of chemicals in order to extract it in a useful form. Research in Nevada found impacts on fish as far as 150 miles downstream from a lithium processing operation.

Rio Grande, Bolivia. An aerial view of the mineral formations along the Rio Grande delta, at the edges of the salt flats. The delta is mostly dry due to the effects of lithium mining, which is heavily reliant on water for its shallow artificial salt-pans, or solar evaporation ponds, in which saline solutions are left to dry out over a period of months, leaving the minerals behind. This drying out of the delta has led to a lack of stability in water levels, both on top of and below the surface. The river is home to a wide variety of freshwater fish, many originating in the Amazon basin

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

According to a report by Friends of the Earth, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and causes air contamination. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, locals claim that lithium operations have contaminated streams used by humans and livestock, and for crop irrigation. In Chile, there have been clashes between mining companies and local communities, who say that lithium mining is leaving the landscape marred by mountains of discarded salt and canals filled with contaminated water with an unnatural blue hue.

“Like any mining process, it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth and the local wells,” said Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert from the University of Chile, in a 2009 interview. “This isn’t a green solution – it’s not a solution at all.”

But lithium may not be the most problematic ingredient of modern rechargeable batteries. It is relatively abundant, and could in theory be generated from seawater in future, albeit through a very energy-intensive process.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Lino Fita, head of potassium extraction for mining company Comibol, looks out over his factory. The brine in this region is rich with potassium and magnesium, which makes it harder and more expensive to extract lithium. The brine is put in large ponds for many months to evaporate excess water and separate its salts. The remaining compound is then purified and processed. Very few lithium-processing experts work in the factory, as there is a nationwide shortage of staff. In the past, as few as three people have run the factory’s entire production line

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Two other key ingredients, cobalt and nickel, are more in danger of creating a bottleneck in the move towards electric vehicles, and at a potentially huge environmental cost. Cobalt is found in huge quantities right across the Democratic Republic of Congo and central Africa, and hardly anywhere else. The price has quadrupled in the last two years.

Unlike most metals, which are not toxic when they’re pulled from the ground as metal ores, cobalt is “uniquely terrible,” according to Gleb Yushin, chief technical officer and founder of battery materials company Sila Nanotechnologies.

“One of the biggest challenges with cobalt is that it’s located in one country,” he adds. You can literally just dig up the land and find cobalt, so there’s a very strong motivation to dig it up and sell it, and a a result there’s a lot of motivation for unsafe and unethical behaviour.” The Congo is home to ‘artisanal mines’, where cobalt is extracted from the ground by hand, often using child labour, without protective equipment.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Brine is pumped out of a nearby lake into a series of evaporation ponds and left for 12 to 18 months. Various salts crystallise at different times as the solution becomes more concentrated. It is also treated with lime to remove traces of magnesium. When the minerals are ready for processing, they are taken to the nearby Planta Li lithium factory to produce the ions that will go into batteries. In 2017, the factory produced 20 tonnes of lithium carbonate

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

There’s also a political angle to be considered. When Bolivia started to exploit its lithium supplies from about 2010, it was argued that its huge mineral wealth could give the impoverished country the economic and political heft that the oil-rich nations of the Middle East. “They don’t want to pay a new OPEC,” says Lisbeth Dahllöf, of the IVL Swedish Environmental Institute, who co-authored a report last year on the environmental footprint of electric car battery production.

In a recent paper in the journal Nature, Yushin and his co-authors argued that new battery technology needs to be developed that uses more common, and environmentally friendly materials to make batteries. Researchers are working on new battery chemistries that replace cobalt and lithium with more common and less toxic materials.

But, if new batteries are less energy dense or more expensive than lithium, they could end up having a negative effect on the environment overall. “Assessing and reducing the environmental cost is a more complex issue than it initially appears,” says Valimaki. “For example, a less durable, yet more sustainable device could entail a larger carbon footprint once your factor in transportation and the extra packaging required.”

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Graves such as this one are a common sight on the salt flats. The area has experienced very little rainfall over the last two years, which has affected the lives of local quinoa farmers. The lithium plants, which use vast amounts of water, have exacerbated shortages: in locations such as Pastos Chicas, near the Argentina/Chile border, additional water had to be shipped in from elsewhere to meet demand

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

At the University of Birmingham, research funded by the government’s £246m Faraday Challenge for battery research is trying to find new ways of recycling lithium-ion. Research in Australia found that only two per cent of the country’s 3,300 tonnes of lithium-ion waste was recycled. Unwanted MP3 players and laptops can end up in landfill, where metals from the electrodes and ionic fluids from the electrolyte can leak into the environment.

A consortium of researchers, led by the Birmingham Energy Institute are using robotics technology developed for nuclear power plants to find ways to safely remove and dismantle potentially explosive lithium-ion cells from electric vehicles. There have been a number of fires at recycling plants where lithium-ion batteries have been stored improperly, or disguised as lead-acid batteries and put through a crusher.

Xiangtan, China. Workers on the production line at Soundon New Energy, a huge lithium-ion battery company in eastern China. Most electric vehicles in use today are yet to reach the end of their cycle. The first all-electric car to be powered by lithium-ion batteries, the Tesla Roadster, made its market debut in 2008. This means the first generation of electric vehicle batteries have yet to reach the recycling stage

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Because lithium cathodes degrade over time, they can’t simply be placed into new batteries (although some efforts are underway to use old vehicle batteries for energy storage applications where energy density is less critical). “That’s the problem with recycling any form of battery that has electrochemistry – you don’t know what point it is at in its life,” says Stephen Voller, CEO and founder of ZapGo. “That’s why recycling most mobile phones is not cost effective. You get this sort of soup.”

Another barrier, says Dr Gavin Harper of the Faraday Institution’s lithium recycling project, is that manufacturers are understandably secretive about what actually goes into their batteries, which makes it harder to recycle them properly. At the moment recovered cells are usually shredded, creating a mixture of metal that can then be separated using pyrometallurgical techniques – burning. But, this method wastes a lot of the lithium.

Linyi County, China. A production line at Chinese electric-car company ZD, in Linyi County. The company’s small, urban electric two-seaters are made exclusively for the Italian market, where ZD has a joint-venture company Share’ngo, a car-sharing startup in Milan. China is the world’s largest electric car manufacturer, and over the past few years, the country has been looking to increase the number of countries it exports to

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

UK researchers are investigating alternative techniques, including biological recycling where bacteria are used to process the materials, and hydrometallurgical techniques which use solutions of chemicals in a similar way to how lithium is extracted from brine to begin with.

For Harper, it’s about creating a process to shepherd lithium-ion batteries safely through their whole lifecycle, and making sure that we’re not extracting more from the ground unnecessarily, or allowing chemicals from old batteries to do damage. “Considering that all of the materials in these batteries have already had an environmental and social impact in their extraction, we should be mindful of ensuring good custody,” he says.

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The physics of energy and resulting effects on economics

10 07 2018

Hat tip to one of the many commenters on DTM for pointing me to this excellent video…. I have featured Jean-Marc Jancovici’s work here before, but this one’s shorter, and even though it’s in French, English subtitles are available from the settings section on the toutube screen. Speaking of screens, one of the outstanding statements made in this video is that all electronics in the world that use screens in one way or another consume one third of the world’s electricity…….. Remember how the growth in renewables could not even keep up with the Internet’s growth?

If this doesn’t convince viewers that we have to change the way we do EVERYTHING, then nothing will….. and seeing as he’s presenting to politicians, let’s hope at least some of them will come out of this better informed……

Jean-Marc Jancovici, a French engineer schools politicians with a sobering lecture on the physics of energy and the effects on economics and climate change





Earth Battery

2 07 2018

I don’t know how this podcast ever flew under the radar, but it’s ‘must listen to’ material….. two of my favourite peakniks, Chris Martenson and Tom Murphy, discuss our predicaments in the clearest possible way.

The standout for me was Tom calling our fossil fuels sources a gigantic solar battery in which millions of years of solar energy was stored, only to be virtually short circuited to be discharged in what is the blink of an eyelid in geological terms……

 





Well Gosh…….

27 06 2018

 

simon_michauxI just came out of a meeting with two ministers of Finland. One was the Director of Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment of Finland. We were to discuss how to develop the battery industry in Finland. They openly discussed concepts like peak oil, hyperinflation, EU currency reset, Break up of EU into something else and the projection that we don’t have nearly enough minerals to make the desired quantity of batteries and solar panels. They even knew what ERoEI was.

Somebody pinch me!!!

Even though I’ve never met Simon face to face, we have become friends over that FB platform and have discovered that we are actually very similar in our senses of humour and outlook for the future…..  Simon is an Australian mining engineer whose work I featured on DTM many moons ago, and is currently working for the Finnish Government in a high power position to determine Finland’s future energy and resources position. The header of this post is by Simon; he posted it on the FB Peak Oil group I follow….. I just had to share it, because it’s obvious that there are plenty of people in goverments (all over the world?) who must know what is going on, and yet do not have the guts to come out and say it like it is.

How much longer will we have to wait before reality makes an appearance in Australia?

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a presentation by Simon on peak mining….





Catastrophic Agriculture

24 06 2018

Complete and slightly edited interview footage with Richard Manning in 2005 (which explains why he keeps talking about world population of 6 billion…), in preparation for the feature-length documentary What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire, from Timothy S. Bennett and Sally Erickson.

Nearly an hour long, so make sure you get a cup of your favourite poison before starting….





Can we save energy, jobs and growth at the same time ?

20 05 2018

I apologise in advance to anyone with a short attention span, this is a bit long at almost one and a half hours……  especially as if you are new to limits to growth, you might have to watch it more than once!
If you ever needed proof that economics is an imbecilic proposal, then this is it.

Published on 30 Jan 2018

Jancovici’s conference in ENS School of Paris – 08/01/2018 To download the Presentation : https://fr.slideshare.net/JoelleLecon… The depletion of natural resources, with oil to start with, and the need for a stable climate, will make it harder and harder to pursue economic growth as we know it. It has now become urgent to develop a new branch of economics which does not rely on the unrealistic assumption of a perpetual GDP increase. In this Colloquium, I will discuss a “physical” approach to economics which aims at understanding and managing the scaling back of our world economy. Biography : Jean-Marc Jancovici, is a French engineer who graduated from École Polytechnique and Télécom, and who specializes in energy-climate subjects. He is a consultant, teacher, lecturer, author of books and columnist. He is known for his outreach work on climate change and the energy crisis. He is co-founder of the organization “Carbone 4” and president of the think tank “The Shift Project”. Original video : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ey7_F… Facebook page : https://www.facebook.com/jeanmarc.jan… Website : https://jancovici.com/




Not so renewables

12 05 2018

Lifted from the excellent consciousness of sheep blog…..

For all practical purposes, solar energy (along with the wind, waves and tides that it drives) is unending.  Or, to put it more starkly, the odds of human beings being around to witness the day when solar energy no longer exists are staggeringly low.  The same, of course, cannot be said for the technologies that humans have developed to harvest this energy.  Indeed, the term “renewable” is among the greatest PR confidence tricks ever to be played upon an unsuspecting public, since solar panels and wind (and tidal and wave) turbines are very much a product of and dependent upon the fossil carbon economy.

Until now, this inconvenient truth has not been seen as a problem because our attention has been focussed upon the need to lower our dependency on fossil carbon fuels (coal, gas and oil).  In developed states like Germany, the UK and some of the states within the USA, wind and solar power have reduced the consumption of coal-generated electricity.  However, the impact of so-called renewables on global energy consumption remains negligible; accounting for less than three percent of total energy consumption worldwide.

A bigger problem may, however, be looming as a result of the lack of renewability of the renewable energy technologies themselves.  This is because solar panels and wind turbines do not follow the principles of the emerging “circular economy” model in which products are meant to be largely reusable, if not entirely renewable.

dead turbine

According to proponents of the circular economy model such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the old fossil carbon economy is based on a linear process in which raw materials and energy are used to manufacture goods that are used and then discarded:

 

This approach may have been acceptable a century ago when there were less than two billion humans on the planet and when consumption was largely limited to food and clothing.  However, as the population increased, mass consumption took off and the impact of our activities on the environment became increasingly obvious, it became clear that there is no “away” where we can dispose of all of our unwanted waste.  The result was the shift to what was optimistically referred to as “recycling.”  However, most of what we call recycling today is actually “down-cycling” – converting relatively high value goods into relatively low value materials:

 

The problem with this approach is that the cost of separating small volumes of high-value materials (such as the gold in electrical circuits) is far higher than the cost of mining and refining them from scratch.  As a result, most recycling involves the recovery of large volumes of relatively low value materials like aluminium, steel and PET plastic.  The remainder of the waste stream ends up in landfill or, in the case of toxic and hazardous products in special storage facilities.

In a circular economy, products would be designed as far as possible to be reused, bring them closer to what might realistically be called “renewable” – allowing that the second law of thermodynamics traps us into producing some waste irrespective of what we do:

 

Contrary to the “renewables” label, it turns out that solar panels and wind turbines are anything but.  They are dependent upon raw resources and fossil carbon fuels in their manufacture and, until recently, little thought had been put into how to dispose of them at the end of their working lives.  Since both wind turbines and solar panels contain hazardous materials, they cannot simply be dumped in landfill.  However, their composition makes them – at least for now – unsuited to the down-cycling processes employed by commercial recycling facilities.

While solar panels have more hazardous materials than wind turbines, they may prove to be more amenable to down-cycling, since the process of dismantling a solar panel is at least technically possible.  With wind turbines it is a different matter, as Alex Reichmuth at Basler Zeitung notes:

“The German Wind Energy Association estimates that by 2023 around 14,000 MW of installed capacity will lose production, which is more than a quarter of German wind power capacity on land. How many plants actually go off the grid depends on the future electricity price. If this remains as deep as it is today, more plants could be shut down than newly built.

“However, the dismantling of wind turbines is not without its pitfalls. Today, old plants can still be sold with profit to other parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, Russia or North Africa, where they will continue to be used. But the supply of well-maintained old facilities is rising and should soon surpass demand. Then only the dismantling of plants remains…

“Although the material of steel parts or copper pipes is very good recyclable. However, one problem is the rotor blades, which consist of a mixture of glass and carbon fibers and are glued with polyester resins.”

According to Reichmuth, even incinerating the rotor blades will cause problems because this will block the filters used in waste incineration plants to prevent toxins being discharged into the atmosphere.  However, the removal of the concrete and steel bases on which the turbines stand may prove to be the bigger economic headache:

“In a large plant, this base can quickly cover more than 3,000 tons of reinforced concrete and often reach more than twenty meters deep into the ground… The complete removal of the concrete base can quickly cost hundreds of thousands of euros.”

It is this economic issue that is likely to scupper attempts to develop a solar panel recycling industry.  In a recent paper in the International Journal of Photoenergy, D’Adamo et. al. conclude that while technically possible, current recycling processes are too expensive to be commercially viable.  As Nate Berg at Ensia explains:

“Part of the problem is that solar panels are complicated to recycle. They’re made of many materials, some hazardous, and assembled with adhesives and sealants that make breaking them apart challenging.

“’The longevity of these panels, the way they’re put together and how they make them make it inherently difficult to, to use a term, de-manufacture,’ says Mark Robards, director of special projects for ECS Refining, one of the largest electronics recyclers in the U.S. The panels are torn apart mechanically and broken down with acids to separate out the crystalline silicon, the semiconducting material used by most photovoltaic manufacturers. Heat systems are used to burn up the adhesives that bind them to their armatures, and acidic hydro-metallurgical systems are used to separate precious metals.

“Robards says nearly 75 percent of the material that gets separated out is glass, which is easy to recycle into new products but also has a very low resale value…”

Ironically, manufacturers’ efforts to drive down the price of solar panels make recycling them even more difficult by reducing the amount of expensive materials like silver and copper for which there is demand in recycling.

In Europe, regulations for the disposal of electrical waste were amended in 2012 to incorporate solar panels.  This means that the cost of disposing used solar panels rests with the manufacturer.  No such legislation exists elsewhere.  Nor is it clear whether those costs will be absorbed by the manufacturer or passed on to consumers.

Since only the oldest solar panels and wind turbines have to be disposed of at present, it might be that someone will figure out how to streamline the down-cycling process.  As far more systems come to the end of their life in the next decade, volume may help drive down costs.  However, we cannot bank on this.  The energy and materials required to dismantle these technologies may well prove more expensive than the value of the recovered materials.  As Kelly Pickerel at Solar Power World concedes:

“System owners recycle their panels in Europe because they are required to. Panel recycling in an unregulated market (like the United States) will only work if there is value in the product. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) detailed solar panel compositions in a 2016 report and found that c-Si modules contained about 76% glass, 10% polymer (encapsulant and backsheet), 8% aluminum (mostly the frame), 5% silicon, 1% copper and less than 0.1% of silver, tin and lead. As new technologies are adopted, the percentage of glass is expected to increase while aluminum and polymers will decrease, most likely because of dual-glass bifacial designs and frameless models.

“CIGS thin-film modules are composed of 89% glass, 7% aluminum and 4% polymers. The small percentages of semiconductors and other metals include copper, indium, gallium and selenium. CdTe thin-film is about 97% glass and 3% polymer, with other metals including nickel, zinc, tin and cadmium telluride.

“There’s just not a large amount of money-making salvageable parts on any type of solar panel. That’s why regulations have made such a difference in Europe.”

Ultimately, even down-cycling these supposedly “renewable” technologies will require state intervention.  Or, to put it another way, the public – either as consumers or taxpayers – are going to have to pick up the tab in the same way as they are currently subsidising fossil carbon fuels and nuclear.  The question that the proponents of these technologies dare not ask, is how far electorates are prepared to put up with these increasing costs before they turn to politicians out of the Donald Trump/ Malcolm Turnbull stable who promise the cheapest energy irrespective of its environmental impact.