Rio Tinto's plans to mine one of Europe's largest lithium deposits might be on hold for now. But the stage is set for future conflicts. We must find greener alternatives to lithium batteries to meet our future needs, argues RSK's Jordi Bruno.
Last week, Serbian environmental protesters were successful in getting plans to allow Rio Tinto to mine one of Europe's largest lithium deposits suspended. The protests, however, have continued.
Serbia's Kreni-Promeni group is focusing its campaign on fears about the pollution caused by mining companies. But there’s an even wider-ranging, more internationally impactful concern about lithium mines: that the mining of lithium for use in batteries is likely to generate global trade conflicts.
Post-COP26, all of Europe needs to move urgently towards the goal of obtaining 100 per cent of its electricity from renewables. But renewable electricity is stored in batteries, and the vast majority of batteries use anodes and cathodes made from lithium and nickel.
Lithium is a scarce metal. With the resources needed to make batteries limited, global competition for it is likely to escalate into aggressive practices, with certain countries likely to become battlegrounds.
Battery wars: The stage is already being set
Serbia’s push to exploit its lithium reserves appears to be driven by the desire to place the country in a stronger strategic position in Europe in anticipation of the price of this natural resource climbing over the next decade.
We have already seen China showing an interest in moving into a position of access to global lithium supplies. It has committed billions of dollars to lithium projects in Latin America, where more than half the world’s reserves of lithium are located in the mines of Chile and Bolivia.
And Chinese mining groups are reported to have been scouting opportunities in Afghanistan to access the country’s lithium deposits.
Trade wars over batteries may emerge in Europe. Serbia is not the only European country with unexploited lithium; the Czech Republic also has large deposits near its border with Germany.
This lithium has never been mined, but its extraction is likely to start soon, and Czech lithium mines are seen as a great hope for the EU’s battery industry.
Green alternatives are urgently needed
But battery wars don’t need to become the dark side of green energy. Instead of becoming reliant on conventional batteries, Europe urgently needs to focus on developing alternatives to them.
Renewable energy is essential to our survival, but its storage in conventional batteries threatens to undermine the advantages. This is not just because of scarce resources; these batteries are themselves anything but green, being hard to dispose of safely.
The number of batteries that we will need to achieve carbon net-zero is absolutely vast. This is not just about electric cars.
All of the electricity generated by wind or solar plants is not sent directly into national grids. Most of it is stored on sites in physical batteries, and the batteries are then transported to where the energy is needed.
This is because pumping electricity directly into the grid is wasteful. If the grid doesn’t need the energy at a particular moment in time, all the electricity that has been produced is lost.
Some work is already ongoing into developing alternatives to lithium batteries: cryogenic batteries, for example, which use low-temperature liquids such as liquid air or liquid nitrogen for energy storage, are being developed. Another company has developed a battery that uses gravity technology.
Hydrogen fuel is not the way out
Another way to avoid having to store electricity from renewables in batteries is to use it directly at the site of production to generate hydrogen fuel.
Hydrogen fuel can simply be stored in large containers, meaning it could effectively function as a ‘green battery’. It may be that hydrogen-powered vehicles, rather than electric vehicles, turn out to be the more ethical future.
This is not a perfect solution. Hydrogen fuel takes up too much physical space to be a viable option for smaller vehicles like cars. But it can power trains, buses, ships and planes, reducing some battery storage pressure.
But we don’t have time to rely on hydrogen, or on a few forward-thinking companies working on amazing technologies for alternative batteries that may not be commercialised for a decade.
We must put much greater resources into developing alternative batteries. If we don’t, demand for batteries will soar as our generation of green energy increases.
Then, the question of which country has the resources to manufacture the most lithium batteries will determine who controls the green energy revolution.
Jordi Bruno is the global business development director for mining at environmental business RSK.