Lithium is considered one of the most essential minerals in the energy transition, it is used by the automobile industry to make batteries, for example. Although electrification can help companies to meet net-zero emissions goals, lithium exploitation could generate severe environmental and health crises in the communities where deposits are located.
During the forum “Lithium in Latin America, Challenges and Opportunities,” Agustin Ávila, General Director of Policy for Climate Gange, SEMARNAT, mentioned that in countries such as Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina, the mineral’s exploitation has caused damages to nearby communities as it requires significant amounts of water and produces emissions that contribute to climate change. Ávila highlighted that lithium exploitation is also associated with hydrochloric acid use, which affects the quality of soil and air.
Aleida Samara, Doctor in International Economics, Tecnológico de Monterrey, said that in some regions of Argentina and Chile, lithium exploitation has damaged the soil so much that it has forced communities to migrate. It is important to find alternative production processes to mitigate possible pollution.
In an interview with El Siglo de Torreón, Hiram Medrano, Head of the Postgraduate Research and Development Unit (UPIDET), Instituto Tecnológico de Durango, explained the progress his team has made in the implementation of bacteria to eliminate pollution generated by lithium extraction.
“We can help in cleaning up and tackling the contaminants that lithium generates with bacteria that eat these contaminants. This eliminates pollution created during the exploitation phase and avoids any toxicity issue,” explained Medrano.
Currently, Medrano’s team is working with different types of bacteria to determine which one of them will be able to act faster and more efficiently, with the aim of one day using this method as an alternative to prevent health issues related to lithium exploitation.
According to the Mexican Geological Survey (SGM), there are lithium deposits in 18 states, Durango among them, but production remains far from a reality as deposits in the state are considered economically unviable. Current mineral prices are lower than the costs of developing extraction projects. Experts have questioned the State’s capacity for lithium exploitation, arguing it is considered a capital-intensive and long-term activity. Others argue that the country is late in the lithium race and that in the future, lithium could be replaced by nickel and cadmium in the manufacturing of batteries.