As We Extract Lithium From US Mines, Environmental Issues Remain

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Traditional mining is one of the dirtiest businesses there is. That reality is pressing on automakers and businesses which are committed to the transition to renewable energy sources. As the US shifts to extract lithium from domestic sources, investors are eyeing new mines and opportunities to secure contracts with battery companies and automakers.

Lithium is used in electric car batteries because it is lightweight, can store lots of energy, and can be repeatedly recharged. Analysts estimate that lithium demand is going to increase 10x before the end of this decade as Tesla, Volkswagen, General Motors, and other automakers introduce dozens of electric models.

Yet, as of this writing, the Biden administration has not moved to promote more environmentally friendly options to extract lithium — like lithium brine extraction instead of open pit mines. Federal and state officials will decide which of the 2 methods — or both — will be approved.

Much will depend on how successful environmentalists, tribes, and local groups are in blocking projects.

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In the first three months of 2021, US lithium miner influencers have raised nearly $3.5 billion from Wall Street — 7 times the amount raised in the prior 36 months, according to data assembled by Bloomberg.

Several lithium mines are readying for production. Right now, workers are getting ready to blast and dig out a giant pit in northern Nevada, the site of a large-scale lithium mine. The endeavor is called Lithium Americas, and it has drawn protests from members of a Native American tribe, ranchers, and environmental groups. The mine is expected to use billions of gallons of precious groundwater, potentially contaminating some of it for 300 years, while leaving behind a giant mound of waste.

“Our new clean-energy demands could be creating greater harm, even though its intention is to do good,” said Aimee Boulanger, executive director for the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, a group that vets mines for companies like BMW and Ford Motor, told the New York Times. “We can’t allow that to happen.”

In an environmental impact filing, the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project (aka Lithium Americas) has indicated its efforts to extract lithium will have the following consequences, in that the mine will:

  • include a total of approximately 17,933 acres (Mine Plan boundary of 10,468 acres; Exploration Plan boundary of 7,465 acres) with an estimated total disturbance footprint of approximately 5,695 acres
  • reach a depth of about 370 feet
  • consume 3,224 gallons per minute
  • produce 66,000 tons a year of battery-grade lithium carbonate
  • mine and process for 41 years, after which it would enter the reclamation and closure period (for a minimum of 5 years)

“Blowing up a mountain isn’t green, no matter how much marketing spin people put on it,” Max Wilbert told the New York Times. Wilbert has been living in a tent on the proposed mine site while 2 lawsuits seeking to block the project make their way through federal courts.

Facilities associated with the proposed action include:

  • Development of an open pit mine
  • Pit dewatering
  • Construction of two Waste Rock Storage Facilities (WRSFs)
  • Construction and operation of mine facilities to support mining operations
  • Construction of a Run-of-Mine (ROM) stockpile
  • Construction and operation of an attrition scrubbing process
  • Construction of a coarse gangue stockpile (CGS)
  • Construction and operation of lithium processing facility
  • Construction of a sulfuric acid plant for use in a leaching process
  • Construction and operation of a Clay Tailings Filter Stack (CTFS)
  • Construction and maintenance of haul and secondary roads
  • Construction and maintenance of stormwater management infrastructures including diversions and sediment ponds
  • Construction of three growth media stockpiles (GMSs)
  • Construction of water supply, conveyance pipeline, booster pump stations, and storage facilities
  • Construction of a 25-kilovolt (kV) power transmission line, substations, and distribution
  • Construction of ancillary facilities to support the Project such as septic systems, communication towers, guard shacks, reclaim ponds, monitoring wells, weather station, fiber optic line, buffer areas, and fencing

Developers and lawmakers see this Nevada project as part of the opportunity for the US to become a leader in producing these raw materials as President Biden moves aggressively to fight the climate crisis. The Interior Department has not yet announced whether it will alter its stand on the permit, which it is defending in court.

Other states have plans for lithium production sites: California, Oregon, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina.

Extracting Lithium From Brine: More Environmentally Sensitive

It is imperative that impacts along life cycle stages be adequately addressed, including lithium mineral extraction. Lithium extraction from salt lake brine is critical for satisfying the increasing demand of a variety of lithium products. Some researchers argue that electrochemical extraction of lithium from solution is an urgently needed process because of the abundant reserves of lithium in seawater/brine and the many disadvantages of the present technologies including high energy consumption, low separation efficiency, and harm to the environment.

Alternatives to extract lithium from briny water beneath California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, about 600 miles south of the Lithium Americas site. At the Salton Sea, investors plan to use specially coated beads to extract lithium salt from the hot liquid pumped up from an aquifer more than 4,000 feet below the surface. The self-contained systems will be connected to geothermal power plants generating emission-free electricity. And in the process, they hope to generate the revenue needed to restore the lake, which has been fouled by toxic runoff from area farms for decades.

Standard Lithium has recently celebrated a proof-of-concept project using the innovative lithium processing technology — the company says that it has produced >99.9% purity lithium carbonate (aka “3 nines”). The process as summarized by the company is as follows: “Start-to-finish direct extraction of lithium from brine in Arkansas; production of purified, concentrated intermediate; final conversion to high-purity battery quality lithium carbonate end-product.”

Businesses are also hoping to extract lithium from brine in Arkansas, Nevada, North Dakota, and at least one more location in the US.

Final Thoughts On How To Extract Lithium: It’s Time To Turn To Renewable Energy

Mining companies are well-positioned to implement cost-saving and efficient renewable energy solutions, provided the correct steps are taken right from the beginning, Nick Oosthuizen, MD of energy efficiency consultancy firm, Inframid, told Mining Review. Because mines are large energy users, they “have a constant baseload for 24 hours, and if you have a constant baseload, it becomes easy to plan a feasible renewable energy solution because it is predictable and you can plan each load segment accordingly and implement the most effective solution,” he explains.

Oosthuizen acknowledges that these are turbulent times, yet mining focus should still be on planning, which is a crucial step in preparing for a smooth implementation stage. Since the mining industry’s transition to renewable energy solutions has been slow — primarily due to cost implications and the variety of approaches that different companies take — it has been the major mining houses, with their stronger balance sheets, that are taking the lead on energy efficiency. Oosthuizen says that the payback period for investing in renewable energy is decreasing. He points out that the break-even amount used to be around 9 years but, in recent times, has been reduced to around 4 years.

Production of raw materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel that are essential to contemporary technologies can destroy land, water, wildlife, and people. Renewable energy in mining is feasible, as is lithium brine extraction, which will offset the environmental costs of obtaining lithium for today’s technologies, including electric vehicles.

And isn’t the elephant in the room, actually, that EVs have many fewer environmental costs over their lifetimes?

Photo from NASA (public domain)

Disclaimer: The author holds shares of Standard Lithium.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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