Mining lithium vs oil extraction
We reached our destination last night at 2:30 am, chilled to our bones due to the freezing cold. We had yet another early start today, luckily with wonderful weather and a hot sun.
It’s been a wonderful 160 km ride today,cruising through tracks in the middle of crops fields, olive trees plantations and plenty of old ruins in the hills that surrounded us. We loved the ride.
So far, everyone has always been terribly nice and friendly allowing us to recharge our motorbikes. Today was no exception. However, something peculiar happened as we stopped at a restaurant by a gas station, with the intention of recharging our bikes at the restaurant while we had lunch (and we did it). I walked by the gas station facilities scouting for wall plugs. An employee wearing a REPSOL jacket asked me what I was doing. Even before I could finish explaining we were touring Andalucía with electric motorbikes he turned his back on me and mumbled: get lost.
Albert and I spend many hours chatting as we ride, using our SENA helmets intercoms. We had a long chat about this very important matter: what could be more damaging for the environment, crude oil extraction of mining for lithium that is the main component on the batteries we use?
Crude oil extraction
We use oil to fuel our airplanes, cars, and trucks, to heat our homes, and to make products like medicines and plastics. Even though petroleum products make life easier, finding, producing, moving, and using them can harm the environment through air and water pollution.
Oil operations on land require drilling fluids that are injected into the wellbore to lubricate the drilling bit. These fluids are supposed to be captured in lined pits for disposal, but very often they are spilled and splashed around the well pad.
One oil production in Colorado (USA) , spills drilling fluids so frequently, it’s currently hoping to reduce its number of reported spills to an occurrence every other day (160 spills per year!). The devastating cumulative effects of numerous small spills on land present long-term environmental impacts and chronic health effects including the potential risk of cancer.
Offshore oil spills, such as the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon unit in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, affect marine mammals through direct contact, inhalation and ingestion of toxic oil. Certain inhaled and ingested chemicals in oil may: damage animals’ organs such as the liver, kidney, spleen or brain, cause cancer, immune system suppression and lead to reproductive failure. Further injured or disturb animals due to response activities and long-term ecological changes.
Open pits, ponds, and lagoons can contain wastewater, organic chemicals, petroleum hydrocarbons, surfactants and other substances which compromise the safety of our water. Pipeline explosions and wells (even if properly drilled) can cause drinking water problems by cross-contaminating aquifers. Development of gas wells may even require releases of methane and myriad toxic gases into the atmosphere.
There are two primary methods for extracting lithium. There are a few open pit mines where lithium is extracted by heavy machinery. But the vast majority of the world’s lithium comes from evaporative extraction in South America, with the half of the known reserves located in the Salar de Uyuni salt flats of Bolivia.
Extracting lithium from the salt flats is actually a relatively simple affair: portions of the flats are bounded into ponds, which are flooded to create a lithium-rich brine. And then they simply wait for the water to evaporate and then remove the newly-surface lithium from the surface. The extraction process does require large amounts of water and often takes several months from start to finish, but it is taking place in an area with very little flora or fauna, and post-extraction restoration of the salt flats is a relatively simple affair.
You don’t burn the lithium after extracting it, you reuse or recycle it. Tesla has a close loop recycling programme for exactly this reason, because it’s more cost-effective to re-use lithium batteries than it is to re-mine it.
To conclude, once those elements reach and fuel the engines of our cars we use to transport ourselves, we invite you to reflect on these words mentioned by Arnold Schwarzenegger :
“There are two doors. Behind Door Number One is a completely sealed room, with a regular, gasoline-fuelled car. Behind Door Number Two is an identical, completely sealed room, with an electric car. Both engines are running full blast.
I want you to pick a door to open, and enter the room and shut the door behind you. You have to stay in the room you choose for one hour. You cannot turn off the engine. You do not get a gas mask.
I’m guessing you chose the Door Number Two, with the electric car, right? Door number one is a fatal choice – who would ever want to breathe those fumes?