Climate Change and Lithium Production, Mutually Exclusive?

29 November 2017 Geoffrey Craggs, Research Analyst, Northern Australia and Land Care Research Programme

Background

There is a global move towards renewable energy. In the near future, energy storage and battery technology will drive an exponential increase in the need for lithium. A soft, highly reactive metal, lithium is extracted from brine or mined from rock. A major constituent of rechargeable batteries lithium is used in laptop computers, mobile phones and many other electronic products. It is also an important component in electric vehicle technology. The future of electrically powered vehicles will depend on enhancing battery storage capacity, in turn, driving demand for lithium.

Comment

Research continues to advance energy-storage engineering using minerals and chemical extracts with enhanced storage capacity. The current focus is strongly directed toward producing solid state batteries using lithium for electric vehicles, grid-scale energy storage, phones, laptops, cameras, gaming consoles and hundreds of other electronic devices. This is due to a key characteristic of higher energy density level than other batteries. In fighting climate change, the transportation industry was one of the first to be targeted. Each year the list of electric vehicles (EVs) grows, and we have reached a time where nearly every major automaker has plans to, or is producing, a fully electric vehicle. Demand for EVs and other transportation modes such as electric buses, electric trucks and even electric planes, is rapidly increasing and with it the demand for lithium. Lithium is also used in applications that range from lubricating grease and glass fabrication, to glazes for ceramics and health products. For these reasons, and the battery-powered future, the mining and production of lithium will continue to play an increasingly important role in future technology.

With its extensive reserves, Australia is well placed to exploit this demand as a major supplier of chemical-grade lithium to the global market. In Australia, the Greenbushes Lithium Project has been in operation for over 25 years and with its huge reserves, allows Australia to claim a place in the top eight countries with the highest levels of lithium production. Australian lithium production is set to expand in 2018 with projects in the review or development stages in the Pilbara in northern WA, Ravensthorpe in the south and Mount Marion, near Kalgoorlie. Other major suppliers addressing the increasing demand are engaged in large-scale mining of lithium in Argentina, Chile, China, Russia, and Zimbabwe.

Globally, governments and enterprises will be subject to a range of environmental events and conditions to which they must respond and adapt as demand increases. Rising sea levels may damage infrastructure such as port facilities and the assets may no longer be able to abide with sea conditions. Weather-degraded roads that will disrupt land transportation routes. Other physical risks such as changing weather patterns, an increased frequency of extreme weather events, droughts, storms and floods, bushfires that threaten facilities and cyclones causing infrastructure damage.

Equally important, but of less obvious concern will be pressures on vulnerable local communities brought about by their responses to climate change. The effects can manifest as damage to local livelihoods and property leading to family breakdowns resulting in eroding community and social standards. Those factors will lead to an un-desired outcome that denotes whether the level and degree of community engagement determines a company retaining its ‘social licence to operate’ and some smaller “miners” will risk reputational damage from having policies and procedures that do not adequately consider the needs of the local and wider community. Therein the need exists for new projects, and current operators, to actively engage (and re-engage) with communities at all levels to discuss environmental concerns in the face of a changing climate.

Some climate change events can directly influence lithium extraction. Increased inundation will potentially, have a severe effect on the solar evaporation process. Furthermore, the stability and cost of critical inputs of energy and water supplies may impact the engineering steps in the hard rock lithium extraction process. Researchers and business analysts attest that in the current business environment, many resources companies remain highly cognisant of, and are actively moving to address, the effect of climate change on their operations.

The rise of electric vehicles, the consumer electronic market and renewable energy grids drives the steadily increasing demand for lithium. Notwithstanding, as climate change is becoming the dominant influence on the natural resources sector, lithium extraction companies must work to determine and risk-assess the effects of their industries. Climate change impacts on industry will be wide and far-reaching but, will not eliminate the necessary production of lithium; mining companies must consider and develop strategies to mitigate a range of risks, to be able to adapt to climate change, at the same time continuing to meet a heightening demand.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
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