According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal: “Batteries are becoming ever more critical to daily life. Their performance dictates how often people have to recharge their smartwatch or phone or smartwatch and are central to overcoming range-anxiety felt by drivers embracing electric cars. Power storage also is critical to the growing demand for renewable energy. All that has supercharged demand for batteries, turning the industry into one of the hottest areas for investors.”
Let’s take a look at how these incredible batteries come to be, including some of the negative impacts that cannot be ignored.
Part 1: The Raw Materials
The stakes are high when it comes to battery development, and those stakes (to over-simplify somewhat) break down into two distinct challenges:
- Mining the key ingredients that are used to power electric vehicle batteries – principally cobalt and lithium.
- Developing the technology that enables those batteries to deliver acceptable range at tolerable cost and re-charge times.
Let’s discuss the raw materials first. When you peel away the layers of hype surrounding the emergence of electric vehicles (EVs), you’ll soon discover the appalling conditions in which the key ingredients fundamental to their operation are mined. That’s not to say EVs are all bad – surely not. Just that they aren’t without flaws.
It’s perhaps ironic that the clean energy revolution in which increasing numbers of us are involved in through our purchases of electric vehicles is based – in part at least – on less than ideal labour practices and the desecration of the environment.
Progress Comes with a Price
But there it is. Progress comes with a price. And the price of mining lithium and cobalt, from sources found in locations as far apart as Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo to the United State’s Salton Sea in Southern California, is one that many of us would be reluctant to pay were the benefits not so dramatic.
Take for example, the geothermal brine collected in California’s Salton Sea which carries a motherlode of dissolved lithium – 600,000 metric tons a year of lithium carbonate – according to another recent report carried in The Wall Street Journal.
“To tap geothermal lithium directly, as operators hope to do in Southern California, miners typically drill thousands of feet deep into the earth, bringing the naturally-existing brines to the surface. There, chemical technologies are used to separate the lithium out of a complex mineral-rich soup whose temperature can reach up to 300 degrees Celsius.”
It’s a messy business which, quite apart from the damage it does to the environment, is causing considerable disquiet to the Barona Band of Mission Indians whose ancestral lands the lithium development threatens: “Among their concerns is that the extraction would dry up springs on ancestral grounds if it punctured one of them during drilling.”
The quest for cobalt and lithium is happening all over the world. Argentina, Australia, and Chile have deposits of the stuff, as does Peru, the Philippines, Indonesia, Russia, and China—this latter nation being distinguished not just by its reserves but by its capacity to process them. The mining process, without exception, is harmful to both the environment and to the almost always severely underpaid and exploited people who get it out of the ground.
Final Thoughts – & What’s Next
All this adds up to what can only be called the dirty secret behind clean vehicles.
A recent investigation by The New York Times reported that, “The quest for Congo’s cobalt has demonstrated how the clean energy revolution, meant to save the planet from perilously warming temperatures in an age of enlightened self-interest, is caught in a familiar cycle of exploitation, greed and gamesmanship that often puts narrow national aspirations above all else.”
That’s the downside.
The upside, which we’ll explore in our follow-up blog, paints a much more optimistic picture of the human benefits of electrically powered vehicles once the technology intended to drive them has become truly mastered. So stay tuned for more!