What’s joins a Bolivian desert, a Tibetan River, dead livestock and animals, and your smartphone and laptop? You may have guessed it: lithium-ion batteries. Ever since the protests of 2016 in Tagong, where Tibetan protestors threw dead fishing onto the town’s streets because they had been finding these dead fish in the Liqi River, nothing much has happened to solve this problem there or globally. What is the problem: pollution from Lithium mines!
I have been looking at the World Economic Forum recently. They are promoting renewable energy using devices such as light aircraft that run on hydrogen and lithium battery electric cars. The narrative is to create the feeling of a happy future where these things become the dominant modes of transport. The WEF is the same organisation that says: ‘You’ll own nothing in the future, and you will be happy’. Meanwhile the owners who rent the things you need to you, will no doubt be even happier. The WEF are an elitist club founded by someone who grew up under National Socialism in Germany. The Nazis Party wasn’t capitalist or communist, it was a racist elitist social experiment of totalitarian control, not unlike many liberal-democracies and dictatorships we see now all over the world, whom over time have learned to disguise their nationalism and socialist ideals cleverly and immerse them in greenwash. The Conservative Party, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Christian Democrats and even Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communists are all good Nazis now. Out of the fire has risen a radio-controlled phoenix and each modern government play the same game Hitler did in a different way, some as evil as his regime, some not so evil. They share a common element: they are all controlled by global bankers who create the conflicts and the peace for their own ends.)
What has this got to do with lithium you may ask? Each civilisation throughout history has a dominant form of energy. During the Mycenaean Empire it was wind power and sun, to grow crops and help them sail ships. This was no different to the eons before it and up until relatively recent times both of these were dominant forms of energy, vital to human survival. Then around 1800 came a revolution started by Richard Trevithick and others with the invention of the high-pressure steam engine. Trevithick died a pauper, but his invention changed the world. The industrial revolution in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland would sweep across Europe and then onto America and the rest of the world. Eventually it culminated in the 1969 landing on the moon and what we have now: computers inside hand-held smartphones. We are amazed by this technology daily, yet few of us know how it works. How does GPS work for example? Few know and even fewer care. It just works. We have gone through two changes since the industrial revolution began. Largely we’ve replaced coal with oil and gas, though coal still is a major method of producing electric grid energy and for industrial production. The Ruhr is a major polluter due to this fact, so is China. Now Lithium is touted as a means to replace cars fuelled by oil to electric. That electric will be produced by wind and solar power. Some of that will be stored in batteries in cars and in homes, as well as industrial battery sites. No one is thinking about the lifespan of these batteries. Everyone is thinking of the clean urban air. No-one is considering the consequences for people where lithium or cobalt are mined. We are as we have always been, greedy, egotistical and localised to our own concerns. We think local and don’t think global.
Those of us that are Energy Futurists – if we are any good – know that neither hydrogen (another one of the WEF’s favourite topics) or lithium are good ideas. I won’t delve too deeply into the problem of hydrogen, since it is included in our course: ‘The Bigger Picture – The Future of Energy’. Here you will discover why hydrogen economies are not viable, unless of course we have something like Space Solar Power and a lot of ability to compress hydrogen.
One thing I never normally delve into is climate change. The reason why we generally don’t talk about here, is because the Future of Energy College isn’t devoted to the idea of changing our energy systems to renewable solely because of climate change. We need to change them to reduce localised air pollution mostly and because oil, gas and coal are non-renewable in the face of exponential consumptions rates. (Remember, any percentage increase is exponential. If someone says it grows by 1% a year, it’s doubling every 70 years. If by 2% it’s doubling every 35 years and so on.)
Instead, today I’m going to focus on lithium, cobalt and nickel-based batteries and explain why we should not keep promoting them as the only solution or the best one for the environment. The reason is two-fold. They have a huge impact on local environments where they are mined. They have a huge recycling problem when they are expired. These two things make them a very bad bet for the future. We need much better batteries that are made from something we can grow, such as algae etc. (Such technology is being developed.)
The mine in Tibet causing the pollution, was run by BYD, the largest lithium supplier. They shut the mine but re-opened it 3 years later. The fish started dying again. If it can kill fish imagine what it does to humans?
Lithium-ion batteries are what people who run battery maker companies get off on. Every night they are lying there looking at markets, almost to a point of orgasm, as lithium prices fall globally, they hope. It takes 12 kg of lithium to run a Tesla Model S. Batteries in homes and businesses using lithium can solve the intermittent nature of terrestrial solar or wind power. To these corporate bosses of the futuristic lithium battery world, it’s a pure sexual experience without the sex, unless they plug in one of their many toys at the same time!
Demand is going from 100 GWh in 2017 to 800 GWh by 2027. Wherever there is a demand there will be a supply. No-one in Chinese occupied Tibet will be of any concern to the large mining corporations. British banks, from their secrecy jurisdiction, will calmly sign off loans to these corporations, knowing that all they must do is sign a few forms that show they are environmentally aware, and it all looks great! It’s the British banking and investment elites’ way of saying to the poor people around the world: ‘You are in our way!’. Don’t believe me? The fact is the British Virgin Islands and Hong Kong via London have invested more in China since 1980s than even the USA. Why the BVI and HK? Simple. They are tax havens. No questions are asked. Drug lords can invest in renewable energy and batteries via shell companies there and no-one would know. It’s the best way to launder money. (See www.perimetrfilms.com and keep a look out for the film: ‘The World Stripped Bare’, a sexy look at high finance is destroying our world.
The growth of smart phones and other devices isn’t helping fishermen and farmers in Tibet, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile or in future the Congo. It’s helping the west enjoy unparalleled communication systems all of which are eating away at land that was inhabitable. This drives the people North from Africa into Europe. It drives them from South America into Central America and on to the USA. The poison our corporations produce comes back to haunt us in the form of over-population and political turmoil.
In South America, the biggest problem is water. The Lithium Triangle, which covers Argentina, Bolivia and Chile holds more than half to the worlds metal under salt flats. It’s so dry that living there is difficult. When one extracts lithium, it pushes mineral rich brine to the surface. The miners leave it to evaporate for many months. It’s a mixture of manganese, potassium, borax, and lithium salts. Then they filter it in pools for 18 months and extract the lithium carbonate. It’s cheap to do but uses 500000 gallons per tonne of lithium. The Salar de Atacama consumes 65% – 70% of the regions water. That’s finishing off farmers who grow quinoa and herd llamas. Meanwhile toxic chemicals leak forms the evaporation ponds, including hydrochloric acid. There’s a range of chemicals needed to extract the lithium at each stage, and thus huge problems downstream. In Nevada, the impact is felt on fish 150 miles from the lithium processing plant. The landscape becomes an unnatural blue colour, poisoned by a corporation’s desire people’s desire to drive a clean renewable electric car, own a smartphone, watch, mobile device, or laptop.
We won’t even go into the stupid of stupidest ideas ever: generating lithium from seawater. The amount of energy used would negate any benefits! It’s simply so dumb that I just cannot reiterate here and feel good about it.
Cobalt and nickel the other associated requirements for lithium-ion batteries, are potentially another problem. Cobalt is found in the oddly named: Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa and hardly anywhere else. The price is quadrupling.
Unlike other metals cobalt is toxic the moment it is pulled out of the ground. In the Congo, you dig up the land and you find alluvial cobalt. Congo has become the home of artisanal mines: those that do it using local labour, mostly poor children, with no protective equipment.
Cobalt poisoning is slow. It happens due to contact with skin, which leads to rashes and irritation. This then can lead to other conditions. They include neurological (tremor in hands, cognitive decline, depression, vertigo, hearing loss, visual changes etc) cardiac (arrhythmias and cardiomyopathy) and endocrine symptoms. Cobalt affects mammalian brain cells, including brains of rats. It’s not just animals that get affected. After a while, the overaccumulation of it leads to iron deficiency in plants.
Politics also gets upset by lithium. Lithium has been found in Afghanistan, that could lead to a growing interest in the area from western and Chinese corporations. In the case of China that’s worrying as any such move further West would bring them into conflict with Pakistan and India (who are rivals) as well as Russia and the West. Also, nations with lithium or cobalt don’t want to have to pay a new version of OPEC.
The environmental costs of using lithium might be greater than the benefits we gain, largely due to its poor energy density. (A point you can learn about in our course on the Future of Energy: the Bigger Picture) This can be calculated by using a cradle to grave method.
Then there’s the elephant in the room: how to recycle lithium-ion safely. Australia research shows that it recycles 2% of its 3400 tonnes of lithium waste. Most electronic waste ends up in landfill. Landfill eventually sends the toxic waste from the metals as they corrode into the water table. Once there they can be drawn upwards and out into the world. Some of it ends up due to bad policies by corrupt politicians in places like Westminster, in African nations, where children burn it and extract the precious metals. In turn this leads to diseases and cancers due to the toxic waste.
Some criminal organisations, funded by trust funds set up in Caribbean tax havens, via the City of London, have even been disguising old lithium-ion as lead acid batteries. Then, when these are stored, they can catch fire or end up going through crushers.
Lithium cathodes degrade and cannot be re-used. For waste disposers this poses a big problem. Each item is at a different point in its lifespan. How does one tell if two identical batteries from two identical phones are at the same point in life? Is one brand new and doesn’t operate because the motherboard has failed, or has the battery failed. Maybe the other phone just needs a new battery, but because its old, Apple want to sell you an upgrade, so you dispose of it in electronic waste not knowing where it goes? Where does it go? I have a bad feeling about that if what happens to plastic is anything to go by!
Battery manufacturers are secretive. They want to protect their patent against Taiwanese pirate firms. One way to do this is to keep their battery design so secret that to recycle them efficiently is impossible. If a recycling company new the composition and design of the battery, it can apply the right solvents to obtain the materials from the battery. If not, it wastes most of the lithium by shredding the battery, then separating them by burning the shreds. One might consider using similar methods to how the lithium was first extracted and processed, but that wasn’t such a good method, so who knows if that is a good idea or not? Probably not!
Is this the type of world we genuinely want to prevent climate change? A world full of a new toxin that damages people’s lives. Is it a case of out of sight, out of mind, much like the oil, gas, or coal industry? Is it just a repeat of what capitalism when linked to industrialisation and consumerism is already doing, but now with new chemicals to people?