Mining Lithium For EV Batteries (and Nukes) in the Arctic Is Probably a Bad Idea
There’s certainly a better way to keep up with lithium demand than…this.
The Arctic Circle has faced some problems in the past few years. Things like the melting ice caps and massive human pollution thanks to mining activities have really screwed things up—and not to mention it's also become an increasingly strategic area worth fighting for. That's all bad but the news is worse now, as we've worked out that there's lithium to be fracked out of the Arctic and, my goodness, we simply cannot stop ourselves.
Lithium's used in a lot of stuff these days, including electric vehicle batteries, and the global rush by manufacturers to build capacity has started a kind of gold rush. The majority of an EV battery isn't made up of lithium but each cell within the battery needs a few grams of it in both the anode and the cathode. Battery makers are quite sketchy about disclosing just how much they use but at a minimum, each EV needs several kilograms, probably up to double figures (more than 22 pounds) if you're talking about the 100-kilowatt-hour and larger packs on most new electric cars.
If you scale that to the ambitions of GM, Daimler and the VW Group to all be making 240 gigawatt-hours of battery capacity per year within a decade, then that would see—conservatively—each automaker using 52,800,000 pounds of lithium annually. Needless to say, we don't currently have an easy way of supplying that much and one of the reasons is because lithium is pretty hard to get hold of. And because it's in places that might not want their ecosystem destroyed.
There are huge lithium deposits in the Atacama salt flats in Chile, which can be relatively easily mined. It's not a perfect process, it uses a lot of water and has created some major local problems, but as methods of acquiring lithium out of mineral deposits go, it's relatively non-destructive.
The other ways of doing it are a lot worse. I became suspicious when a company called Cornish Lithium suddenly appeared, immediately post-Brexit, with a plan to mine big, battery-grade lithium deposits in the south of the United Kingdom. Looking further into its process, it turned out to involve mining granite mica, blasting it to smithereens with water, and then essentially using the same, soluble method of extracting battery-grade lithium as in the Atacama—it's just you need to break the rocks apart first.
When I spoke to the company earlier this year to ask for its environmental studies that proved this was a better way of mining lithium, Cornish Lithium admitted that it was only just now receiving funding to do those studies. Its contention that any British-mined lithium would be more environmentally friendly by default because it wouldn't need to travel miles hinges on whether you think Cornwall really needs to be attached to the rest of mainland U.K., I guess.
Russian state-owned mining and nuclear company Rosatom wants to do a similar thing in the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia. Now, it's worth saying here that Rosatom's nuclear activities aren't entirely sinister, as it would build modern, clean, nuclear power facilities—something it's good at it. However, what it wants to do in the Arctic, according to Barents Observer, is to extract lithium to use in thermonuclear warheads and electric vehicles.
Lithium-6 is used in nuclear weapons to set off the second phase of the nuclear reaction that makes them explode, basically. Refining it is controversial across the world because there's essentially nothing else you can really use it for. Also, by the time Rosatom gets its Arctic mine operational by its estimated opening date of 2030, thermonuclear warheads might be its main product because the demand for lithium for other purposes will have been addressed already.
Even assuming this is a good project that's commercially viable, though, there's a more important issue here, which is that you probably shouldn't be destroying the world's largest wilderness area to absolutely deck the living daylights out of the ancient rock.
In a month where the extremely painful human costs of the Taliban's re-takeover of Afghanistan has been strangely paired with concerns for $1 trillion's worth of untapped mineral deposits there, including lithium, it's easy to see the dead-eyed greed that's going to drive access to the resource over the next decade. Never mind that it's an apocalyptic-grade climate disaster that's pushed us to need so much of it in the first place.
The Arctic Circle has already borne a lot of the cost of EV materials, with the nickel mine Norilsk—the world's most polluted place—providing the material that's replacing problematic cobalt and shuffling the problem from one disaster to another.
If mining is started on the Kola Peninsula then it'll be on the Kolmozero deposit, a hard rock deposit that's between the Khiminy mountains and the Barents Sea. This happens to be within an area that was just given environmental protection in 2018 as a crucial area for nature and the Sami people.
Indigenous people, whose land is often the more remote and untouched areas, are endangered by lithium mining everywhere right now. The search for a U.S. source of this century's oil is acting as justification to mine on land sacred to Paiute-Shoshone people in Nevada. Lithium America says the Thacker Pass holds $2.6 billion in lithium value but its plan is to essentially minecraft the hell out of the region with open-pit block mining, a horribly destructive process that carves deep, scarred valleys through sediment. On balance, I'd take freeing the end of Cornwall from the rest of the U.K.
It's now emerged that 3,000 kilometers of the Inari municipality, northern Finland—just west of the area that Rosatom is looking at mining—has been reserved by Swedish company Arctic Minerals AB. Barents Observer reports the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation's mining specialist, Jari Natunen, as saying that in Arctic mining of nickel, one million kilograms of nickel produced creates 50 million kilograms of toxic waste as a by-product. Also, it reports that a lot of it goes into polluting bodies of water, as is already happening in Norilsk.
Sami reindeer herders are concerned about the destruction of their homeland, but with the alternative being difficult-to-trace and ethically troubling mineral mining in the Congo, there's huge pressure to find industrial-scale sources of the minerals we need for the future.
There's a huge—and growing—demand for lithium to address the environmental disasters we've made with, yeah, the vehicles we love. But we can't hoon towards making worse ones for the sake of it.
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