It will take between 12 and 18 months for that mix to be filtered enough in order to be able to extract the lithium carbonate, also known as white gold. While it’s cheap and effective, the process needs a lot of water, estimated at 500.000 gallons per ton of lithium extracted.
This creates a lot of pressure in local communities living in nearby areas. For example, in Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining has caused the region to lose 65% of the region’s water. This has meant impacts of local farmers, who rely on agriculture and cattle for their livelihoods and now need to get the water from somewhere else.
The risks of lithium mining
Lack of water in the region is not just the single potential problem with lithium mining. Toxic chemicals can leak from the evaporation pools to the water supply, such as hydrochloric acid, which is used in the processing of lithium – as well as waste products that can filter out of the brine.
In the United States, Canada, and Australia, lithium is usually extracted from the rock by using more traditional methods. Nevertheless, this still requires the use of chemicals in order to extract it in a useful form. In Nevada, the research found impacts on fish 150 miles downstream from a lithium processing operation, for example.
A report by Friends of the Earth argued that extracting lithium can affect the soil and causes air contamination. In the area Salar del Hombre Muerto in Argentina, residents complain that lithium polluted streams that are used by humans and livestock, while in Chile there were clashes between mining firms and locals.
Improved technologies for lithium extraction
Researchers argue that there’s a need to develop new extraction technologies that can allow manufacturing batteries in a more environmentally friendly way. That’s why across the world many are looking for new alternatives, such as battery chemistries that replace cobalt and lithium with more common and less toxic materials.