A German company called Vulcan Energy recently closed a deal with Volkswagen to supply “zero-carbon lithium” for the manufacturing of EV batteries. This could make the major automaker completely climate neutral, despite what is currently known about the environmental impact of lithium mining.
One of the examples that is the most illustrative when it comes to the environmental realities of lithium mining is that of Chile. Approximately one fifth of the world’s current lithium production comes from this Latin American country, and it is all done by the same company in the same location: Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (SQM) in the Atacama Desert. SQM’s Lithium Vice President Carlos Díaz told the New York Times that they are hoping to increase that production capacity from 140,000 tons to 180,000 tons by the end of 2022, all of this in an effort to have the entire country become carbon neutral by 2040. Unfortunately, a report from India Times observes that lithium mining causes soil moisture to decline and daytime temperatures to increase, generating more carbon emissions to deal with drier areas and hotter environments for the communities affected by this mining. The more lithium is extracted, the more the environment surrounding the mine becomes even more unfit for humans. This is what has led Chile’s new constitution, which is currently being drafted, to include specific provisions tightening the regulations surrounding lithium mining and demanding higher restitution payments to communities affected by this activity.
On the other hand, Vulcan Energy claims that their lithium extraction process is completely free of additional carbon emissions. Their extraction activities are currently focused on a basin in the Upper Rhine Valley in southwest Germany. According to their press release, “The current main pathway for producing and refining lithium, from hard-rock mines, would emit approximately 1.05 billion tons of CO2 to produce the quantity of lithium required to electrify all the world’s passenger vehicles, if the industry went down this path.” To counter this, Vulcan proposed an extraction process that the company does not even refer to as mining: “Unlike hard rock mining or even evaporation ponds, our process draws on naturally occurring, renewable geothermal energy to power the lithium extraction process and create a renewable energy by-product. This uses no fossil fuels, requires very little water and has a tiny land footprint.”
It is the boldness of these claims that has led Vulcan to its ambitious contract with Volkswagen, according to which they will start supplying the famed automaker with a total of 34,000 to 42,000 tons of lithium from 2026 to 2031 with the possibility of an extension after that initial five-year period, according to a report from Recharge.