Credit: Tom Hegen

The dark side of lithium and our supposed electric future

Widely used in our electric devices, from mobile phones and laptops, to cars and aircraft, demand for lithium is at its peak right now and will continue skyrocket in the coming years.

Global policy insists that the energy sector should plot roadmaps to net-zero, and the transport industry will be almost entirely reliant on lithium to make this happen. Its rechargeable ion batteries are set to account for 60% of new car sales by 2030.

We constantly hear of the benefits that renewable tech will have on the planet, but the means of procuring the materials we need to build this future is often overlooked.

It’s this aspect that German aerial photographer Tom Hegen strives to highlight in his latest exposé series focused on the ‘Lithium Triangle’ — the point at which Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia meet, where rich deposits of lithium can be found.

Credit: Tom Hegen

His works primarily focus on the damage human activity leaves on the Earth’s surface, specifically by extracting natural minerals to be refined for our own means.

Typically, when we think of extraction, fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil come to mind, but lithium mining has adverse impacts of its own that will become more pronounced as the demand for supply increases.

Removing these raw materials can result in soil degradation, biodiversity loss, and water shortages. On that last point, approximately 2.2 million litres of water is needed to produce just one ton of lithium through evaporation ponds, and resulting water scarcities are causing conflict within surrounding communities.

This issue has drummed up big controversy within Portugal’s municipality of Pinhel, where residents are preparing an injunction to stop all exploration leases. In-fact, 95% of the local population has rejected the plans despite promises of ore exploitation creating 800 new jobs.

Mining from salt flats reportedly contaminates, consumes, and diverts already limited water resources away from regional communities as well as local flora and fauna. The extent of water contamination from these processes is also cause for concern.

A 2021 report from non-profit BePe goes as far to claim that ‘activity must be stopped until studies are available to reliably determine the magnitude of the damage.’

Thankfully, research is underway to ensure that nihilism doesn’t prosper in favour of continued fossil fuel use. Gleb Yushin, a professor at the School of Materials and Engineering in Georgia is working on a new battery alternative with less toxic and more easily accessible materials.

Iron and silicon are the two main materials creating buzz with climate scientists at the moment, but whether or not the global drive for lithium will be derailed is looking unlikely.

In reality, for as long as lithium is described as the non-renewable material that could make renewable energy possible, it’s surely worth exploring other options to invest in, right?

If you’re interested in seeing the surreal landscapes where these lithium batteries are formed, head here to see Hegen’s work.

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