On the blog we have covered lithium-ion quite extensively. In fact, readers know that we have often pointed to the inevitable battery boom associated with lithium-ion demand, and it’s fitting to suggest that its forcing the globe to search for lithium-ion reserves in order to be economic contenders in the tech market.
The global demand for lithium is expected to quadruple by 2025. Meeting this demand will be a tough one, and dependent upon continuous exploitation of third-world reserves.
Latin America is home to more than half of the global lithium reserves, located in high-altitude Andean deserts. Argentina, Bolivia and Chile are often referred to as the “lithium triangle.”
Bolivia has the largest known reserve of lithium in the world, but it hasn’t been able to export its resources due its internal instability. In contrast, Chile and Argentina have been exporting lithium for decades and are the second and third largest lithium ion producers in the world.
The Extraction Process:
A major concern is that the amount of water needed to mine lithium is placing increased strain on the supply. In Latin America, the extraction process involves pumping a salty brine from underneath the ground into a series of evaporation pool. During several months, different elements are evaporated until the lithium deposits are taken to a plant to produce lithium carbonate, which is the final ingredient that goes into lithium ion batteries.
The extraction process takes place in very arid areas. One thousand seven hundred litres of lithium brines are pumped from the subsurface every second. This is huge consumption that has recently sparked much concern that mining will cause more water and brine to leave water systems that are then returned by precipitation. In the lithium triangle, many indigenous Andean communities rely on the limited water supply for their agricultural activities.
Industrialization of Lithium Mining:
The industrialization of lithium mining also produced pollution and introduced new chemicals into fragile Andean ecosystems. This negatively affects hydraulic cycles, flora and fauna. In the high altitude deserts where lithium deposits are found, there are unique animal and plant species. Their preservation is crucial to avoiding major ecosystem disruptions. It is also key to attracting tourism, which is an important industry in Bolivia and Chile.
Many of those who are negatively affected by mining are the Quechua and Aymara people who have experienced a brutal history of natural resource exploitation, dating back to the Spanish colonization when the indigenous populations were enslaved to work in mines.
Currently, indigenous communities are excluded from debates on natural resource extraction. Conflicts between mining companies and local communities continue to arise. We hope better solutions are found soon.