THE CYCLE OF LITHIUM: FROM MINING TO RECYCLING
Olga Mazur, Primero
As the world endeavors to make a transition to an era of clean energy, the demand for lithium is increasing exponentially. The environmental impacts of extracting, usage and end-of-life of lithium are of great interest to many stakeholders. This paper investigates the environmental impacts associated with different technologies that are currently used for processing hard rock ore into lithium carbonate and for recycling of lithium-ion batteries to recover the most valuable materials. Lithium mining operation has its impacts on the environment including loss of biodiversity, contamination of soil, groundwater and surface water by chemicals from mining processes. On the other hand, lithium-ion batteries are most commonly used in portable electronic devices and their use is expected to grow during the next decades. It is clear that batteries recycling is preferable to their landfill disposal. However, it is yet to be determined which recycling processes have the least impact on the environment. The study shows that the largest contributors to the environmental impacts associated with mining are electricity, water and chemicals consumption, as well as transportation of spodumene or lithium carbonate from process plant to batteries manufacturer. On the side of recycling, transportation of used batteries, usage of reagents, production of residue and landfill of unused materials are the main contributors. The recommendations for improvement are to select low-energy equipment and low-temperature processes, to reduce usage of water and chemicals, to standardize the production of batteries and to reduce transportation of products. Life cycle assessment (LCA) of each specific case should be considered to make conscious and rational decisions.
Mining, recycling, lithium, environmental impacts, life cycle assessment