In recent times, the air quality in Africa has witnessed drastic deterioration, and while there are various contributing factors, vehicular emissions and emissions from energy production continue to be the primary pollutants.
As talks of climate change continue to dominate conversations globally, continents of the world have begun moving their electricity grids to renewables and ditching fossil-fueled vehicles for electric vehicles (EVs) — and Africa is not left behind in this transition.
Electric vehicles are vehicles that are either partially or fully powered by electricity. Their main attraction is hinged on their environmentally friendly nature due to their little or no use for fossil fuels (petrol or diesel). Even more, electric vehicles are cheaper to run.
According to UNEP, South Africa, Seychelles, Rwanda, Mauritius, and North African countries are front leaders in the EV market on the continent, with cleantech startups taking the forefront and pushing e-mobility.
The decarbonization of transport to meet global net zero ambitions will require significantly increased amounts of the raw materials, like Lithium, used to manufacture batteries and other green technologies.
Lithium (also referred to as ‘white gold’) is a vital component of EV batteries. Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries used in a variety of products like smartphones, electronics, EVs, medications, heat-resistant ceramics and glass, and as power backup batteries in areas experiencing power hiccups also contain cobalt, graphite, and nickel.
Lithium is sourced mainly from salt brine and spodumene (hard rock). In Africa, countries like Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Ghana, and Mali have lithium resources.
Zimbabwe’s Bikita mine holds Africa’s largest lithium reserves at around 11 million tonnes, the fifth-largest globally, in the southwestern province of Masvingo. On the other hand, about 50% of world cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which accounts for over two-thirds of global production of the mineral.
Now, here’s the problem — while the EV revolution is a welcome development, the raw materials (lithium and cobalt) that make up the component of the batteries all have lengthy extraction processes that are not only detrimental to health but also to the environment.
Let’s take a closer look at the effects of unsustainable lithium and cobalt mining on the environment and health.
Lithium and cobalt mining and the environment
Lithium and cobalt resources are mostly located near some of the most sensitive ecosystems, and mining them unsustainably can lead to the complete destruction of the surrounding ecology.
The entire lithium extraction process contributes to an increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
When trees and green plants are cut down by lithium miners to eliminate obstructions at targeted mining areas, it hinders photosynthesis from occurring and this is detrimental to the environment because excess carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere during photosynthesis.
Lithium miners also use heavy machinery that consumes a lot of energy and produces various toxic gases, including carbon dioxide.
Chemical discharge from mines can leak into water sources, making not just the water undrinkable but also killing aquatic species and making its way into the food chain through fish.
On the other hand, cobalt mine sites may contain sulfur minerals that can generate sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water. This process, known as acid mine drainage, can devastate rivers, streams, and aquatic life for hundreds of years.
Also, Lithium mining destroys soil structure and leads to unsustainable water table reduction. Water table is the depth below which the ground is saturated, ensuring the availability of adequate water sources.
When the water table is destroyed, water resources are depleted and this leaves the land too dry, exposing ecosystems to the risk of extinction.
In addition, lithium extraction requires a lot of water. You need approximately 500,000 gallons of water to extract one ton of lithium.
This high water requirement causes an acute water shortage in most arid and semi-arid mining areas (resulting in the prevalence of waterborne diseases like dysentery and cholera) and puts a halt to farming activities in surrounding communities.
Large-scale lithium extraction requires plenty of lands and when these fertile pieces of land are ripped away from their local ecosystems, the patches are left barren.
Lithium mining also denies trees with shallow root systems the opportunity to make their food and be productive.
Safe to say lithium extraction is responsible for the onset of desertification and destruction of the habitats and minerals that plants and animals depend on for survival in some of these communities on the continent.
Lithium and cobalt mining and health
In 2018, the price of Lithium doubled due to a steady increase in demand. During this period, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted that the number of electric vehicles (EVs) worldwide would be 125 million by 2030.
The global demand for lithium-ion batteries has led to the high price of cobalt and in Southern Congo where an estimated 3.4 million metric tons of cobalt sits, there is a ‘gold rush’ and artisanal mines have become death traps.
Many Congolese who have taken jobs at industrial mines in the region are at risk of exposure to toxic metals which are mildly radioactive in some cases. If a pregnant woman works with such heavy metals as cobalt, it can increase her chances of having a stillbirth or a child with birth defects.
According to a study in The Lancet, women in southern Congo “had metal concentrations that are among the highest ever reported for pregnant women.” The study also found a strong link between fathers who worked with mining chemicals and fetal abnormalities in their children, noting that “paternal occupational mining exposure was the factor most strongly associated with birth defects.”
Respiratory problems and other diseases
The lithium mining process includes the separation of valuable resources from the uneconomic remains of the core (gangue). After this process, wastes like sulfuric acid and radioactive uranium byproducts can get discharged indiscriminately and cause respiratory problems, cancer, and other diseases as well as present and long-term challenges.
The mining also presents other serious problems like large amounts of lime and magnesium wastes
Similarly, the use of explosives in graphite mining can blow dust and fine particles into the atmosphere, causing health problems in nearby communities and contaminating soils around the site.
Human rights violation
More than 70% of the global production of cobalt takes place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and according to UNICEF, about 20% of that cobalt comes from artisanal mines where about 40,000 children work in extremely dangerous conditions.
Children work perilous shifts navigating rickety shafts and picking pure ore from rock slabs. If they don’t make enough money, they have no food for the whole day and this means they would have to get drugged in order to suppress hunger.
Making lithium and cobalt extraction processes safe for the environment
No doubt, Africa has significant natural lithium and cobalt resources which may provide an opportunity for many countries on the continent to contribute to meeting increased demand whilst also supporting economic growth. However, if lithium is not extracted and used sustainably, it would simply end up transferring climate pollution to the air, soil, and water.
For Africa to position itself for the global demand and drive ‘clean’ EV adoption, it must ditch ‘dirty’ mining by employing sustainable mining and processing practices.
Also, the development of new lithium and cobalt mines across Africa will go a long way and this can only be successful if good governance, human rights, and minimizing environmental impacts are all considered priorities.
Cleaning up the supply chain
Lithium supply chains are complex and commonly global in their extent, with steps that include exploration, mining, processing, manufacturing, use, and recycling.
The biggest challenge and opportunity to help ensure more sustainable mining for lithium is to bring the battery refinement processes close to the actual source itself and minimize the shipping process and global logistics impact of moving the produced minerals to the final auto and transportation facilities themselves.
This will not only ensure that the automotive and other industries have more reliable access to core materials but also dramatically reduce the global carbon footprint and waste of shipping.
Also, to avoid the disastrous situation of them ending up as hazardous waste, dismantling lithium-ion batteries and recycling them safely should be greatly considered (The University of Birmingham in the UK is exploring ways of using robotics technology to do this and limit the negative impact of the cells).
For example, batteries from EVs could be recycled and used in smaller appliances, drastically increasing the battery’s lifecycle. This will reduce production scale and minimize resource depletion, carbon dioxide emissions and environmental and health risks.
Conventional lithium mining processes are slow, inefficient, and often chemically intensive, only resulting in the extraction of approximately 50% of the available lithium from the mine. Two lithium extraction variations are currently used – hard rock and brine. Hard-rock extraction uses significantly less water and energy in production, whereas the long-term effects of brine mining remain ambiguous and require a diversion of water.
Fortunately, better technology methods are being developed that will significantly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of lithium extraction and processing.
One of those methods is Direct lithium extraction (DLE), which is very fast and has a much smaller operational footprint. DLE extracts lithium from underground brine and uses technologies like nanofiltration or ion-exchange resins to aid in the efficient processing of the DLE lithium-containing eluant.