There is no doubt that lithium and cobalt play a huge role in modern societies, as both elements are essential components of many renewable energy sources such as solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars. Demand for electric vehicles is likely to continue to increase in the coming decades, as the apparatus to switch to more sustainable forms of transportation becomes clearer and clearer. Not only for EVs, but the battery demand for consumer electronics will continue to increase as well, up to 2.5 terawatt hours by 2030. However, we cannot talk about the green transition without taking the environmental impacts of lithium and cobalt mining into account. Though emissions deriving from mining these two elements are lower than those deriving from fossil fuels production, the extraction methods for lithium and cobalt can be very energy intensive – leading to air and water pollution, land degradation, and potential for groundwater contamination.
Despite the importance of EV markets and growing battery technology in controlling the world’s emissions, it is up to society to figure out a more practical and efficient way of extracting these resources. It is important to note that fossil fuel mining, including lithium and cobalt mining, is estimated to be responsible for the emission of around 34 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) worldwide annually. About 45% of it is from coal, 35% from oil, and 20% from gas.
Relative to fossil fuels, Cobalt mining is only responsible for around 1.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2e) equivalent. For Lithium mining, it is estimated to be in a similar range at around 1.3+ million tonnes of carbon annually, with every tonne of mined lithium equating to 15 tonnes of CO2 into the air. Thus, the amount of carbon emitted is significantly less than fossil fuels, and a necessary middle ground should be considered in society’s transition to further renewables technologies.
The Environmental Impact of Lithium
Lithium is typically mined through a process called brine mining, which involves extracting lithium from underground saltwater reserves. The risks in polluting local water sources arise here, with examples in Salar de Uyuni and Salar de Atacama. This process involves pumping saltwater to the surface, where it is evaporated to remove the lithium and other minerals. Despite being relatively energy-intensive, this remains one of the most cost effective ways to mine lithium nowadays. Unfortunately, these toxic metals can contaminate water sources, threatening not only humans but also animal biodiversity.
Furthermore, some of the metals contained in EV batteries are highly damaging even in small quantities. Since a large majority of them are disposed of in landfills, leaks of environmental contaminants are quite frequent. Often, these leaks lead to underground fires, which release even more pollutants into the atmosphere. When particles of hazardous metals contained in batteries – like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, and copper – enter the human respiratory system, they can cause a variety of health problems.
In a paper published in the journal Nature, Gleb Yushin, a professor at the School of Materials and Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology with co-author Kostiantyn Turchenius argued that new battery technology needs to be developed using more common, environmentally-friendly materials. As reserves of lithium and cobalt will not meet future demand, suggested elements to focus on instead include iron and silicon.
The Environmental Impact of Cobalt
Cobalt is mined through surface and underground mining. Surface mining is the process that involves removing the top layer of soil or rock to access minerals or metals, while underground mining involves digging tunnels and shafts to access minerals or metals located deeper below the surface.
Unlike Lithium where the supply is plentiful, there is more of an effort to meet the demand logistics for cobalt. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) produces 60-70% of the world’s Cobalt output. However, the conditions of the mines in which Cobalt is produced has generated significant controversy in the media and abroad. Still, the average, daily $3+ wage for miners is significantly more than the average wage in the country (where 73% of the population live below $1.9 a day). A main reason why workers will continue to mine in these fields is the above average pay and thus the associated economic incentives resulting from artisanal mines. It is currently estimated that between 140,000-200,000 people work as artisanal miners in the DRC.
Nonetheless, the risks of cobalt mining on the human population in Congo is well documented, where mines are often operated in dangerous and polluted conditions. The mining and refining processes are often labor-intensive practices and are associated with a variety of health problems as a result of accidents, overexertion, exposure to toxic chemicals and gasses. Ontop of all this, violence is common throughout centered around racism, discrimination, and worker abuse. The miners, known locally as creseurs, are so economically reliant on this informal economy that these dangerous conditions cannot afford full consideration.
The environmental costs of cobalt mining activities are also substantial. Southern regions of the DRC are not only home to cobalt and copper, but also large amounts of uranium. In mining regions, scientists have made note of high radioactivity levels. In addition, mineral mining, similar to other industrial mining efforts, often produces pollution that leaches into neighbouring rivers and water sources. Dust from pulverised rock is known to cause breathing problems for local communities as well.
If you want to learn more about cobalt mining, check out this next: Cobalt Mining: The Dark Side of the Renewable Energy Transition
Can We Make Cobalt Mining More Environmentally Sustainable?
The short answer is yes.
One way to make cobalt mining more environmentally-friendly and sustainable is to reduce the energy intensity of cobalt mining processes through the implementation of energy-efficient technologies. This can help reduce emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gasses. Additionally, improved waste management and recycling practices can also help reduce the environmental impacts of cobalt mining.
Energy efficient technologies for reducing energy intensity of cobalt mining include:
- Relying on renewable energy sources (solar or wind power) to power mining operations.
- Implementing energy efficient machinery and equipment, as well as improved energy management practices.
There is no doubt that more sustainable energy is a necessity for the world going forward. As modes of transportation are a necessity for humans and society, perhaps cities will have to re-think urban planning or at least consolidate it for the infrastructure necessary. Perhaps a redesign around economic incentives and infrastructure for lithium and cobalt mining extractions needs to be considered, or at least implement standards on a global basis to allow for more sustainable practices. When it comes to survival and efficiency, societies historically tended to ultimately converge on the right path. And for key resources such as cobalt and lithium, addressing their environmental and human impacts is becoming more important than ever.
More about this topic: The Environmental Impact of Battery Production for Electric Vehicles