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How to Build a Lithium-Powered Clean Energy Economy from the (Under)Ground Up

Last year, the global economy passed an important milestone: The number of electric vehicles (EVs) quietly traversing the world’s roads reached two million. As this number increases, each new EV brings us one step closer to a vision of a global clean energy economy. In this economy, we use technological innovation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. In addition to EVs, these innovations include batteries that store solar and wind energy for later use and cell phones with digital energy management technologies to make our consumption as efficient as possible.

At the heart of this renewables-driven economic vision is lithium — a light, soft metal that is decidedly not renewable. The most common method for producing lithium, solar evaporation, is a water-intensive process that requires about two years to produce usable lithium. Despite the length of the process, extraction companies have been flocking to lithium hotspots around the globe for the past several years in a “white gold rush.”

Lithium’s atomic makeup makes it a prime conductor of electricity. The metal is the key component of rechargeable batteries for smartphones and other electronic devices. Now, with their light weight and long life, lithium-ion batteries are critical to the electric vehicle and energy storage industries.

With both these industries booming, the demand for lithium has skyrocketed and will only grow in the future. EVs and energy storage may still be considered novelties, but between policy incentives for renewables and technological innovations, they will soon become more affordable and more popular. With the mainstreaming of these technologies, the world will need more and more lithium.

As we ramp up lithium production, we have an opportunity to expand the clean energy vision to the very beginning of the supply chain that will help make it a reality: before lithium-ion batteries are even assembled, when the metal is still dissolved in deposits of salt water (brine) deep underground. To make the clean energy economy truly clean, we must explore lower-impact methods to procure this mineral.

To extract lithium, a mining company pumps mineral-rich brine from underground, then places this solution into a series of evaporation ponds, from which water evaporates, leaving behind salts and minerals. If scaled up significantly, there are concerns that this extraction process could threaten locals’ supply of fresh water. Not only is fresh water used in lithium operations, but scientists say freshwater can also flow into underground pools emptied by brine pumping, making it inaccessible to local communities. Lithium reserves are also usually found in desert areas, home to fragile ecosystems that can be destroyed by large-scale saltwater pumping.

Many members of indigenous communities living in the “Lithium Triangle,” an expanse of salt flats covering Argentina, Chile and Bolivia that hold significant amounts of the world’s lithium reserves, have opposed the onslaught of lithium prospectors, expressing concerns about the rush’s siphoning of limited water supplies.

And it’s not just South America — whether through brine or “hard rock” mining (digging deep mines underground or into mountainsides), lithium operations operate in NevadaAustralia and Mongolia — all desert, water-stressed regions.

Fortunately, there are emerging developments to extract lithium with a much smaller environmental footprint.

For example, some companies are pursuing the recovery of lithium from the recycling of batteries at the end of their useful lives. It is a business opportunity that also tackles another environmental problem lurking in the renewable energy economy: The mountains of used batteries from electrical vehicles and energy storage systems that will require recycling and safe disposal. According to the Guardian, we’ll have to deal with 11 million tonnes of discarded lithium-ion batteries from EVs alone between now and 2030.

At MGX Minerals, we are also working toward the extraction of lithium from existing resources — in our case, oilfield wastewater. Our goal is to recover lithium from petroleum brine, which oil companies currently spend millions of dollars to dispose of. We call it “petrolithium.” By harvesting lithium from the petroleum brine present in oilfield wastewater, our technology leverages a vast network of pre-existing resources and infrastructure. Our innovation also produces lithium at a much quicker rate than traditional methods, so that if scaled up, it can better keep up with the upswing in lithium demand.

This reduced production time will be critical, as the world needs lithium —  lots of it, and as soon as possible. Conventional lithium producers played an indispensable role in bringing electric vehicles and energy storage systems to market. But given the increasing need for this mineral, there’s room for innovative extraction methods that are more efficient and have a lower environmental footprint. By exploring alternative methods of lithium production, we have the opportunity to build a clean energy economy from its very origins deep underground.

Lead image credit: PushEVS