Lithium the Element
As governments around the world begin a serious push to change global transportation from fossil fuel powered to electric powered, one of the main components is the mineral lithium to be used in batteries.
Lithium (Li) is the third element on the Periodic Table following Helium. Lithium is a metal, and an extremely reactive one. Lithium reacts vigorously with water to produce hydrogen gas and with oxygen forms lithium oxide. To prevent reactions such as this, lithium is isolated from the environment by storing it immersed in oil or kerosene.
Lithium is the lightest metal of the alkali metals, all of which are very reactive. It is never found in nature in its pure state as it reacts so readily with water and air.
From Lead to Lithium Batteries
In the 1990s General Motors' first electric vehicle was the EV-1. It had a lead acid type battery. In the early 2000s manufacturers perfected the use of lithium batteries, as they can store more power than the old lead acid types. Vehicles can go faster and travel further with lithium batteries.
Canada currently mines no lithium. The United States does have some lithium mining operations and there are plans for major expansion of lithium mining in the U.S.A.
As with most mining operations it is not necessarily an environmentally friendly process. Extracting lithium from the ore involves using solvents and large amounts of water (1.9 million litres per ton of lithium) evaporation.
The Thacker Pass Lithium Mine
A new proposed lithium mine in the USA is the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine located in northwest Nevada. This mine will burn 26,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day. Projected carbon emissions from the plant and related transportation are estimated at 152,000 tons per year.
The Thacker Pass mine will use 4.6 million gallons of water per day in a dry region experiencing water shortages caused by a prolonged drought. The new mine will overlap 2,866 acres of Big Sagebrush habitat where families of golden eagles nest and breed. The Final Environmental Impact Statement (2019) found 3 occupied golden eagle territories overlapping the project area. A fourth golden eagle site adjoined the project area. Dozens of golden eagle nests were in the general region.
A coalition of environmental and Indigenous groups have filed a lawsuit against the proposed mine. They argue that the Thacker Pass is “critically important to wildlife because it connects the Double H Mountains to the Montana Mountains. The pass also provides lower-elevation habitat that wildlife need to survive the winter”. The area also constitutes one of the last undeveloped big blocks of sagebrush habitat.
Their concerns are legacy contamination from groundwater pollutants such as arsenic. There are air pollution concerns from sulfuric acid leaching of lithium from clay sediments. Also there are concerns not only of contaminated groundwater but of changes of connectivity of ground water routes and a general lowering of the ground water table. No small issue in an extremely dry region.
The impacts on ground water may impact surface water systems that provided critical aquatic habitat to endangered species such as the Lahontan cutthroat trout and Kings River pyra (Pyrgulopsis imperialis), a rare spring snail not known to live anywhere else in the world.
Alexi Zawadzki, the CEO of Lithium Americas Corporation has said the open pit mine will not go below the water table for the first 20 years of operation .But after that it will! Short term greed versus Indigenous long term environmental thinking.
The Thacker Pass mine site has been disturbed since 2007 with open pit excavation and drill core sampling.
Environmentalists argue there has not been free, prior, and informed Indigenous consent for the project.
The mine will impact hunting and gathering of Indigenous people. Thacker Pass is the traditional homeland of several related Indigenous nations, including : Shoshone-Paiute Tribe of the Duck Valley Reservation, Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, the Lovelock Paiute Tribe, the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.
Local Indigenous people harvest traditional foods, medicines, and supplies for sacred ceremonies in the region.
The owner of the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine is Lithium Americas Corporation. There are 13.7 million tons of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) with an average ore grade of 2,231 ppm (o.22%) lithium. The value of the deposit is estimated to be $3.9 billion.
Along with Indigenous groups opposing the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine there are four environmental groups: Western Watersheds Project, Great Basin Resource Watch, Basin and Range Watch, and Wildlands Defense. The basis for their lawsuit against the mine includes threats to sage grouse habitat,old growth sagebrush, golden eagle nests, endemic spring snails and endangered Lahontan cutthroat trout, bighorn sheep, and the pygmy rabbit.
An occupation by Indigenous and environmental groups of the site began in 2021.
There currently are no general lithium recycling facilities operating in North America. One exception is Tesla corporation which reportedly does recycle all its Tesla car batteries. But companies like General Motors are only storing their used electric car batteries for later recycling.
A major problem with lithium battery recycling is the extreme volatility of lithium. It catches fire if exposed to oxygen in water or moist air.
One hopes that general lithium recycling will be established with planned electric car expansion but as of today we are still waiting.