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Published on: Aug. 23, 2022, 8:55 p.m.
Lithium’s underbelly
  • The vivid hues of a lithium fields are caused by different concentrations of lithium carbonate; Courtesy: Tom Hegen

By Business India Editorial

We live in a swiftly electrifying world of renewables where lithium plays a key role. But is there a dark side to the lithium-driven world?

Yes, there is.

Lithium extraction fields in South America have been captured by an aerial photographer in stunning high definition. But while the images may be breathtaking to look at, they represent the dark side of our swiftly electrifying world.

Lithium represents a route out of our reliance on fossil fuel production. As the lightest known metal on the planet, it is now widely used in electric devices from mobile phones and laptops, to cars and aircraft.

Lithium-ion batteries are most famous for powering electric vehicles, which are set to account for up to 60 per cent of new car sales by 2030. The battery of a Tesla Model S, for example, uses around 12 kg of lithium. These batteries are the key to lightweight, rechargeable power. As it stands, demand for lithium is unprecedented and many say it is crucial in order to transition to renewables.

However, this doesn't come without a cost - mining the chemical element can be harmful to the environment, reports Euronews.

German aerial photographer Tom Hegen specialises in documenting the traces we leave on the earth's surface. His work provides an overview of places where we extract, refine and consume resources with his latest series exposing the “Lithium Triangle.”

This region rich with natural deposits can be found where the borders of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia meet. And roughly a quarter is stored in the Salar de Atacama salt flats in northern Chile.

“Since a lot of my work deals with the extraction, processing and use of resources, I got interested in what the transition of the mobility sector towards electromobility looked like,” he tells Euronews.

“Lithium is one of the key components of building (car) batteries and I wanted to photograph the worldwide biggest examples of lithium evaporation sites in the lithium triangle of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.”

“To get the enormous mining operations in the frame, I chartered a small aeroplane and flew high above them,” Hegen adds.

The vivid hues of the lithium fields, or ponds, are caused by different concentrations of lithium carbonate. Their colours can range from a pinky white, to a turquoise, to a highly concentrated, canary yellow.

Any type of resource extraction is harmful to the planet. This is because removing these raw materials can result in soil degradation, water shortages, biodiversity loss, damage to ecosystem functions and an increase in global warming.

But when we think of extraction, we think of fossil fuels like coal and gas. Unfortunately, lithium also falls under the same umbrella, despite paving the way for an electric future. Lithium can be described as the non-renewable mineral that makes renewable energy possible — often touted as the next oil.

According to a report by Friends of the Earth (FoE), lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and causes air contamination. As demand rises, the mining impacts are “increasingly affecting communities where this harmful extraction takes place, jeopardising their access to water,” says the report.

Researchers are working on new battery alternatives that can replace lithium and cobalt. Since the reserves of lithium and cobalt will not meet future demand, experts say that unless we come up with alternative solutions, the rollout of electric cars will stall within a decade


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