The dirty business of clean energy manufacturing – The Independent

Even more problematic, sulfuric acid in prodigious quantities is needed to leach lithium from claystone. Hundreds of tons of sulfur waste from oil refineries (about 75 tractor-trailer loads) will be trucked to Thacker Pass and burned each day.

The dirty business of clean energy production

– By Howard Sierer –

The dirty business of making clean energyLithium cannot be grown on sustainable, organic farms. Neither does cobalt, gallium or nickel. Each of these minerals is needed in large quantities to produce electric vehicle (EV) batteries, solar panels and wind turbines for so-called clean energy.

The ores that contain them must be mined from the ground, trucked to processing plants and refined – usually at very high temperatures – to produce the finished metal. And here’s the catch.

Getting them out of the ground requires equipment – ​​very big equipment and a lot – powered by fossil fuels. Consider the large Caterpillar 994K wheel loader widely used in surface mining. It burns 900 to 1000 gallons of fuel in 12 hours and its bucket can carry up to 50 cubic meters of ore weighing over 125,000 pounds or 60 tons.

Caterpillar’s largest mining truck is the 798AC with a gross weight of 687 tons when loaded. Depending on the distance to the ore refinery, several dozen trucks could be needed at any open pit mine. There are approximately 52,000 active mining trucks in the world today, each burning hundreds of gallons of fuel every day.

According to International Energy Agency projections, achieving net zero global emissions by 2050 will require increasing the production of energy-useful metals from 7 million metric tons per year to 42 million by 2040. , or a multiplication by six. Lithium demand is expected to increase 40 times from 2020 levels as electric vehicle sales take off globally.

According to the US Geological Survey, global lithium production in 2021 was 100,000 tonnes, with some from brine operations in China, Argentina and Chile, but 55,000 tonnes from surface mines in Australia and others surface mined in China. According to IEA figures, up to four million tonnes of lithium per year will be needed by 2040. For every tonne of lithium mined, 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide will be released into the air.

Today, China produces 76% of the world’s lithium-ion batteries; the United States produces 8%. Congress has recognized the strategic importance of reducing our dependence on China in general and for electric vehicle batteries in particular.

Its recent legislation clarifies that federal electric vehicle subsidies of up to $7,500 will not apply to electric vehicles that use batteries containing minerals that “have been mined, processed, or recycled by a foreign entity of concern” from 2029. China is the entity targeted by concern.

We can therefore expect a lot of pressure to “extract” the lithium and other metals needed in this country. The best prospect for lithium mining in the United States is at Thacker Pass in north-central Nevada. Lithium concentrations there range from two-tenths to nine-tenths of a percent, requiring 110 to 500 tonnes of ore to produce one tonne of lithium.

To meet our country’s expected need for electric vehicles, the proposed Thacker Pass mine, along with other US sources of lesser size and quality, will need to mine approximately 200 million tonnes of ore per year. To meet global demand, dozens of surface mines will be needed around the world.

Even more problematic, sulfuric acid in prodigious quantities is needed to leach lithium from claystone. Hundreds of tons of sulfur waste from oil refineries (about 75 tractor-trailer loads) will be trucked to Thacker Pass and burned each day.

Along with these short-term environmental concerns will be another complicating factor. When solar panels and wind turbines reach the end of their useful life – usually around 20 to 30 years – these minerals will need to be recycled into new products, a process that has its own poorly understood environmental consequences.

Thacker Pass is where the irresistible force of the environmental movement – the elimination of fossil fuels – meets its enduring goal – the preservation of the natural environment. In this case, the motionless object is represented by Protect Thacker Pass, an activist environmental group working to “prevent Lithium Americas from physically disrupting Thacker Pass.” Another naysayer, Dr. James JA Blair of Cal Poly Pomona, will give a talk on lithium mining at the Utah Tech Forum on Tuesday, September 20. The forums are open to all citizens of the community.

For decades, the environmental movement has been adept at using the courts to prevent or at least block civil projects for years – highways, dams, airports, etc. – and commercial projects such as mines, factories, pipelines, power plants and transmission lines. After accumulating project costs with legal delays of several years, either compromises are found or projects are abandoned. Which one will it be at Thacker Pass?

I expect some unseemly infighting between environmental activist groups since some will no doubt align themselves on both sides. Groups with more pragmatic outlooks will recognize the need to act quickly to find a compromise that allows the mine to move ahead before the 2029 deadline. But an uncompromising Protect Thacker Pass with others, however small or unrepresentative – they, could still set the mine back for a decade or more or even kill it altogether.

Will Congress and the Biden administration step in to designate Thacker Pass as a national priority, anticipating environmental objections? Don’t hold your breath: such legislation would be sure to offend a vocal part of the Democratic base.

Thacker Pass will be an indicator of whether the environmental left, faced with a compelling reality, is becoming more rational. Destroying a lithium mine in this country would exemplify a narrow “not in my backyard” mentality, since alternative lithium mines elsewhere in the world would produce equivalent environmental damage while making our country more vulnerable to supply disruptions.

Moral of the story: Most environmental actions require complex trade-offs that are often overlooked or ignored by their proponents. In that case, expect all the benefits of electric vehicles for the next 20 years to be wiped out by a massive increase in the dirty business of clean energy generation.

About Michael Murphy

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