A friend of mine is adamant that the extraction of lithium for batteries (and the creation of battery cells themselves) is a very environmentally-damaging procedure, potentially even more-so than oil (open-cut mines vs oil wells), and that this is only going to get worse as more and more EV cars hit the roads, age, and need their batteries replaced.

What mechanisms are involved in the creation of Li-ion batteries? How does it compare to the extraction and processing of fossil fuels in terms of environmental impact/emissions?

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    One big factor is that the oil is (nearly all) subsequently burned contributing to climate change. But whether the whole EV supply chain can realistically scale to replace internal combustion engines - and at what environmental cost - is a good one. – aucuparia Feb 10 '20 at 15:13
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    Oil-sands involves un-advantageous oil extraction and refining. Sour crude requires more refining than sweet crude but reserves of sour crude are available to just pump out of the ground. But I also wouldn't suggest a comparison of the problems of lithium mining to the use of oil. – S Spring Feb 12 '20 at 15:40
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    @EnergyNumbers & SSpring - the 'use' of oil Is not in scope of this comparison, I'm only interested in the mining and refining processes – Robotnik Feb 12 '20 at 21:21
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    But then it's a nonsensical comparison. – 410 gone Feb 13 '20 at 14:16
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    This is cherry-picking. If you properly represented what he said, he is comparing the production of a specific item with a very vague term 'extraction of oil.' A valid question would be comparing the lifetime (production and use) impact of an electric car versus one on gas - and those comparisons come out in favor of the electric vehicles, including the (indeed) negative effects of producing lithium batteries. How much in favor depends on the way the electricity is produced. – user2451 Feb 16 '20 at 10:43

Your friend is wrong and here's why.

Lithium is mined once and can be reused in any number of vehicles. When the vehicle breaks, its lithium will replace newly mined lithium. If we need let's say 2 billion cars on the road with batteries, they need a certain fixed amount of lithium. If we need 2 billion oil-burning cars on the road, they will continuously use more and more extracted oil.

Oil is mined once, then burned, and then you don't have the oil anymore; you instead have carbon dioxide.

Furthermore, lithium is nowadays best produced by evaporating lithium salt rich water in a desert. Read about it here. The power to evaporate the water is produced by the sun. Of course, it is not fully free of damaging side effects, such as:

Extraction of lithium-rich brines is causing conflict with water use by local communities and is damaging the ecosystem, including the Andean flamingo.

...but you could probably find damaging effects from any other mine.

The key here is truly that lithium can be reused, oil cannot.

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    I just listened to this podcast about recycling lithium batteries. Currently, this is not a done deal: it is mainly done for the cobalt and nickel; the lithium has degraded and is still hard to recover/re-use. – user2451 Feb 21 '20 at 18:48
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    Lithium atoms do not degrade. Yes, the lithium is there as a compound so by taking an old battery you won't get pure lithium. You need some chemistry tricks for extracting the lithium. – juhist Feb 21 '20 at 19:03
  • Precisely, that's the (currently) hard part. – user2451 Feb 23 '20 at 11:00
  • I'm sure chemical engineers will solve the hard part eventually. There's no hurry; it is possible to use degraded batteries with 50% of their capacity left for grid energy storage to balance hour-to-hour wind power short term variations. – juhist Feb 23 '20 at 11:24
  • Exactly, and the three R's (reduce, reuse, recycle) are in order of usefulness. Reusing a battery until it can't be used for anything and then recycling it is better than recycling it as soon as it can't be used for its initial purpose. – Turksarama Feb 24 '20 at 4:43

I am not an expert on mining, but I do know my way on fossil fuel extraction. Getting oil from the earth and making it into fuel is not as easy as it sounds, and really the process is way more contaminant than extracting metals from the ground.

To make it more clear I can try to explain it in parallel, in both you extract the resource from the ground, depending on the type of mine the mineral (Lithium) can be quite contaminant but given humanity has done this for thousands of years (mining not for lithium but for more things) there are many ways to extract minerals in which there is minimum contamination of water and of other materials, also extraction of Lithium is quite simple compared to other minerals given that Lithium is highly reactive.

Oil in the other hand does not come as a liquid, it is more like goo that is stuck to the ground and you extract a flow of mud (some are liquid but most of oils extracted are mud) that is highly pressurized in a cave underground, you drill it and up comes the fossil mineral. Oil then is bottled up and sent to the first of many steps, first you have to get rid of water on the oil (even if extracted on land oil has water). Then you need to extract the sour gases, H2S, CO2, CS2 among others, most of which are highly toxic. When we are down to this process compared to Lithium you already have the metal extracted ready to be melted, but here this is just the start.

Oil now has many beautiful long molecules that can be used for medicines, plastics, ceramics, even food (seriously) but who needs that? We need fuel! So it goes into an equipment called cracker, which breaks these wonders of science down to not-so-long not-so-short molecules that are better suited to be burned.

After being cracked it is then distilled in not one but usually two or more distillation towers to be made into several types of fuel, diesel, kerosene, gasoline, jet fuel, paraphine and even asphalt (waste product).

Those fuels are still not good for the market, they need to be further cleaned from sour gases (they are a pain to get rid of believe me).

All of these processes require literal tons of fuel to power the process itself, tons of carbon emissions at each second because a chemical refining plant works on steady-state meaning it never stops for a single second, maybe for an emergency.

Natural gas is something to consider, it naturally builds up at the top of the oil deposit, and of course you get some of it when extracting oil, since natural gas is cheap and there is little profit to be made there it is burned, thus the big fire plume on top of oil rigs.

Nowadays the process is less wasteful but Chemical Engineers are moving away from the burning of fuels for two simple reasons;

  1. It literally kills the planet, the process to get them and the burning too.
  2. You destroy things that are much more valuable, molecules that can make life so much easier and even sustainable, biodegradable plastics we have yet to discover, medicines to cure illnesses, all of that destroyed just because we want to power our car.

Source? I am a chemical engineer, I work doing simulations for oil companies, even those companies are moving away from oil burning and towards use of electricity as fuel. Yes not all of them but I got into this field for this particular reason, the best way to understand a problem is from the inside, electric cars are not a final solution but they are indeed the next step. If you can avoid cars altogether and use public transportation.

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