It is a precious alkali metal. And it's the building block for the lithium-ion batteries that power the electronics used by billions. They are used in electric vehicles, smartphones, laptops. That's why lithium is moving the world.
Despite its advantages, scientists face a dilemma when it comes to its environmental impact. The process of obtaining lithium through mining is destructive to the environment. Lithium has a small atomic weight and radius. That's why it has a high voltage and charge storage per unit mass and unit volume. One of the methods engineers use to extract lithium is brine extraction. An underground brine reservoir is drilled by pumping the salt water to the surface. The brine is sent to evaporation ponds leaving a lithium concentrate.
According to Euronews, “lithium production using evaporation ponds uses a lot of water. About 21 million liters a day.
In arid areas of South America, water (a scarce resource) is diverted from local communities to mining operations. It harms agropastoral practices and pollutes the environment.
Lithium batteries are considered safe for people and homes. Failures are rare, lithium-ion batteries have even caught fire. Zheng Chen is a professor of nanotechnology at the University of California (United States). He points to a case in which a mobile phone caught fire on a flight. Teslas have also caught fire, as well as an energy storage station in Monterey, California.
When the battery burns, heat and pressure are produced and toxic gases are released through evaporation. When mixed with the wind, these gases can spread to the communities where people live. «It is worrying if there is no good mitigation strategy in the design of these systems. We have incidents where electric vehicles have caught fire in garages. “They are not common, but they have happened,” says Chen.
Chen is not convinced that all risks can be eliminated. “Mechanical damage can occur, even if we do not expect it.” That is why consumers are advised to “remove lithium devices and batteries from the charger once they are fully charged. Lithium batteries should be stored in dry, cool places.
It is true that lithium is moving the world. But perhaps we are not yet aware that, at the same time, it is undermining it.