Lithium: Coming to a Playa Near You

Lithium mining has occurred in Nevada since the Rockwell mine, near Tonopah NV, and owned by Albemarle, began production in 1965. With increased used of lithium-ion batteries, the production of lithium is projected to increase. The U.S. only has 3% of global lithium reserves, yet many exploration projects are underway in Nevada. The presence of Tesla’s gigafactory and Panasonic battery factory in Nevada has influenced significant interest in mining lithium in the state. Lithium extraction differs from traditional hard rock mining in that the preferred method involves pumping and processing brine solutions in which the lithium is suspended. This process posses unique environmental impacts in relation to exposed evaporation ponds which pose a risk to migratory birds and leftover solid waste salts which are subject to limited reclamation. In addition, lithium is a highly reactive element, which is easily combustible, and produces toxic fumes. Recycling capacity has not scaled with production, and this could result in future challenges in managing used lithium products.

Lithium production is necessary given current technology to facilitate the construction of green energy systems, and this warrants increased production. However, lithium poses unique risks both in production and in management of the element once in manufactured goods. In order to safely switch to energy systems dependent on lithium battery storage we must put effort into scaling recycling capacity along with production, and this has not occurred. There are economic limitations to increasing recycling capacity, yet the long term economic costs associated with environmental and social impacts need to be taken into consideration. It is likely that a legislative solution, such as cradle to cradle regulation, will be necessary to facilitate the responsible growth of lithium industry.

General Issues

Environmental Concerns

  • Risk to migratory birds
  • Waste salts and heavy metals concentrated on surface
  • Consumptive use of water

Environmental Justice Concerns

  • Impacts focused on rural tribal and ranching communities