Renewable energy developments have created new demands for critical metals, outpacing some of the understanding of the potential health and environmental impacts of their use.
Surging demand for renewable energy is focusing attention on the critical metals (such as copper, nickel, cobalt, lithium, and rare earth elements) needed for transmission lines, magnets, and battery storage. Lithium’s light weight and high reactivity make it an ideal choice for rechargeable batteries. Advances in battery technology have made way for the production of lithium batteries with enough capacity to power a growing fleet of all-electric cars and trucks. Furthermore, the ability to produce lithium batteries capable of economically storing energy from wind and solar farms is on the horizon. Demand is growing so quickly that the Biden administration has named large-capacity batteries as one of four critical products in its recent domestic supply chain assessment (FCAB, 2021). National efforts focusing on the identification of additional mining resources for lithium and other critical metals as well as increasing battery manufacturing capacity are underway both domestically and in allied countries.
[R]egulators are increasing scrutiny of lithium and its related products to evaluate health and environmental concerns at each stage of the lithium supply chain.”
The entire lithium battery supply chain – from mining and mineral processing, to manufacturing of battery cells and packs, to industrial and consumer product use, and, ultimately, to recycling and disposal practices – is under heavy pressure to keep up with global demand. When electric vehicles (EVs) initially hit the market, their lithium battery cells were manufactured abroad. US manufacturing capabilities increased gradually after heavy investment. By 2020, US manufacturers produced 70% of the lithium battery cells used in EVs sold in the US. However, domestic demand for EVs is expected to increase more than 5-fold over the next five years, while expected US capacity for all lithium cell manufacturing (not only for EVs) is forecast to increase less than 4-fold. Even with the 4-fold growth in capacity, US manufacturing contributions to the global supply will remain nearly unchanged, representing only 9% of the global market, and the domestic demand will continue to outstrip domestic supply. Lithium battery recycling operations are also under development, but remanufactured batteries are anticipated to supply less than 10% of global demand in 2040.
In tandem with pressure to identify and develop new sources of lithium and quickly scale up manufacturing capabilities, domestic and international regulators are increasing scrutiny of lithium and its related products to evaluate health and environmental concerns at each stage of the lithium supply chain.
The Biden administration has indicated that it plans to update regulations to ensure that strong public health and environmental standards, including those to address sustainability and environmental justice concerns, are in place for mining projects targeting lithium and other critical metals. A multiagency team, including the US Dept. of the Interior, the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), and the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), has been tasked with identifying the critical statutes and regulations that require further review. For example, lithium’s movement in the environment has not been as widely studied as many metals, but its relatively high mobility means that it will behave differently in the environment as compared to the metals and minerals for which the regulations were originally written (e.g., the Materials Act of 1947, which regulates the disposal of mining materials on federal land).
In order to evaluate potential human exposures more broadly, US EPA recently added lithium to its list of unregulated contaminants to be monitored by public water systems, but that do not have enforceable health-based standards. US EPA’s decision to begin lithium monitoring follows a recent United States Geological Survey (USGS) study that evaluated lithium in drinking water supplies across the US (Lindsey et al., 2021). The study found that approximately 45% of public supply wells and 37% of domestic supply wells have concentrations of lithium that could present a potential human health risk using a non-regulatory screening level developed by US EPA. Although USGS found that most lithium concentrations were likely due to natural sources, it noted that anthropogenic sources may have growing importance. More critically for manufacturing and international trade, the development of a health-based hazard assessment for lithium in the European Union (EU) under the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation is expected later this year.
Lithium batteries are just one example of the many innovative technologies that will support the domestic green economy. Ramping up manufacturing of these new technologies may bring significant economic and environmental benefits, but also the potential for unforeseen environmental impacts. These nascent industries should embrace lessons learned from legacy mining and processing operations and proactively manage their environmental impacts to ensure robust protection throughout the supply chain, spanning from mining and mineral processing, manufacturing, and use, to recycling and disposal. Evaluating potential health and environmental concerns is necessary to ensure that potential risk concerns are adequately addressed, even if regulatory requirements are lagging.
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Argonne National Laboratory (ANL). 2021. “Lithium-Ion Battery Supply Chain for E-Drive Vehicles in the United States: 2010-2020.” Environmental Systems Division. Report to US Dept. of Energy (US DOE). ANL/ESD-21/3, 105p., March.
Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries (FCAB). 2021. “National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries: 2021-2030 (Executive Summary).” 24p., June.
Lindsey, BD; Belitz, K; Cravotta, CA III; Toccalino, PL; Dubrovsky, NM. 2021. “Lithium in groundwater used for drinking-water supply in the United States.” Sci. Total Environ. 767:144691. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.144691.