Heal my soul

O Lithium sunset

And I’ll ride the turning world

Into another night

— Gordon Sumner (Sting), “Lithium Sunset”

Mercury Falling, 1996

In an interview with Bloomberg Press, Sam Riggal, chief executive officer of leading metals company CleanTeQ, said, “It’s dawning on North America and Europe that there’s a raw materials issue that needs to be addressed here.” Furthermore, limited amounts of lithium, cobalt, and nickel exist on Earth, so there may simply not be enough to meet car manufacturers’ future demand.

Added Gavin Montgomery, researcher at Mackenzie Wood: “Getting the quantity of nickel that (electric vehicles) will need by the mid-2020s will be a challenge ... with lead times often up to 10 years, investment needs to happen now.”

Car buyers’ shifting tastes partly explain why manufacturers are demanding more of those metals. In recent years, customers have been turning toward electric vehicles, rather than traditional gasoline-powered ones. According to a Bloomberg chart, by 2030 the increase in nickel, copper, and aluminum will be over 10 times the production of 2018; lithium eight times and cobalt three times, respectively, the production of 2018.

With the transition to electric vehicles and to sustainable green energy in full swing it seems we have to consider the dependencies that will be created. Can the projected demand for electric vehicles meet the known available resources? What will it take to get those resources? Take a look at this list of elements that are commonly used in manufacturing the driving elements — ie, the battery and electric motor — of today’s EV. The adjacent number is the percentage of availability of these elements in the earth’s crust.

Silicon, 27%; aluminum, 8.1%; iron, 6.8%; magnesium, 2.9%; titanium, .57 %; nickel, .016%; manganese, .11%; copper, .0068%; dysprosium, .006%; cobalt, .003%; lithium, .0017%; niobium, .0017%; boron, .00086%; molybdenum, .00011%; praseodymium, .00086%; terbium, .000093%.

There are six general mineral classifications for lithium batteries: Lithium cobalt oxide; lithium manganese oxide; lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide; lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide; lithium iron phosphate; lithium titantate.

Mining lithium

Lithium, nickel, cobalt, and copper are primary elements of the EV batteries. Of these, lithium and cobalt are the most critical and least abundant. Currently there is a surplus of lithium awaiting the expected huge demand for the up-and-coming EV battery market.

But what does it take to get lithium? For starters, a lot of water — about half a million gallons per ton of lithium. Lithium occurs in three states: a brine, in rock, and in clay. Lithium brine is the most available source. Mining or harvesting the brine is the most effective, ergo most profitable, means of obtaining the silver metal. To extract lithium from rock is far more energy intensive requiring external high heat and pulverization. Then there’s clay. Suffice it to say extracting lithium from clay is not profitable; however, a great deal of lithium is bound up in clay.

Why cobalt?

Cobalt has been determined the best element for the cathode. The exact chemical reason is complicated and beyond the scope of this column. Just determining that a cobalt oxide was the best “catalyst” took years and is a fairly recent discovery. Supportive battery research on the electrodes (anode and cathode) is continuing in labs all over the world. Super efficient electrodes are the holy grail for batteries.

Caveat of mining cobalt

Most of the world’s cobalt so far is mined in the Republic of Congo, where in addition to the toxicity in handling cobalt, there are other problems such as child labor and job safety concerns. Children are paid $2 a day doing back-breaking work under very primitive conditions. Safety conditions are ignored and life is expendable. Lawsuits are pending against the high tech companies that rely on cobalt for the cell phones.

Caveat of brine harvesting

Often water is not available nearby for processing. So the ore is taken to a water source or reservoirs are built to hold the water. These sources become contaminated.

South America has the largest reserves of lithium. Numerous environmental injuries and disasters have occurred there. Chile has the largest reserves of lithium. Chilean farmers and their livestock are getting sick near these huge brine fields. The most notable disasters in South America occurred in Brazil, by a company called Vale, one in 2015 and one in 2019. They caused nearly 300 deaths and an enormous environmental impact. The recent number of accidents and their severity should give rise to a global commitment to create guidelines for handling the brine and lithium processing in general. Added to all that, there is the issue of water depletion in the regions where the ore is mined and processed as these places are usually dry to begin with.

Recycling is necessary

Another issue is the life of lithium cells is limited. Disposal of lithium batteries is and will be another serious issue. The lithium battery can be recharged only so many times until it simply will not charge. Lithium batteries cannot simply be placed on scrap heap without severe consequences. We need to develop ways to recycle lithium batteries. Not just the lithium but the cobalt as well.

What is on the horizon?

It appears not much can be done to improve the mining techniques for extracting lithium. Vast amounts of water are needed to make the brine and that water should be recycled on the spot. Reservoirs should contain the used and recycled water. These reservoirs must meet rigid standards. Thirty-three of the 100 dams used by Vale in Brazil were found to be structurally compromised. Also restriction is needed to be placed on water consumption so as not to compromise nearby populations.

New technologies are needed to improve these EV batteries or to develop a “forever battery.” Energy density is the buzz term for battery efficiency. Metals that can replace lithium and cobalt are being considered but are a long way off. Then, can a system be established where these batteries can be rebuilt on an exchange basis? For example every 10 years your batteries get exchanged for a reconditioned set. In the author’s very humble opinion*. Just having a common battery pack might go a long way for EV battery longevity, recycling and costs.

Re-establish the Bureau of Mines?

Here’s a part of the original mission statement of the Bureau of Mines established in 1910: The conduct of research to enhance the safety, health, and environmental impact of mining and processing of minerals and materials.

The collection, analysis, and dissemination of information about mining and processing of more than 100 mineral commodities across the nation and in more than 185 countries.

Analysis of the impact of proposed mineral-related laws and regulations upon the national interest.

This might be a good decision given the problems with mining and recycling.

The Bureau was de-established in 1995 by Congress and was left to a myriad of other disconnected departments where in this author’s humble opinion*, the left hand does know what the right hand is doing.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller proposed reestablishing this agency in 2010; maybe we should reconsider it.

* Always humble

Jim Bobreski is a process control engineer who has been in the field of electric power production for 43 years. His “Alternate Energy” column runs monthly.

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