So you’ve bought your new electric car. You congratulate yourself on contributing to cleaner air in the UAE as you drive down Sheikh Zayed Road creating zero emissions.
And then someone points out the carbon released in factories to manufacture this ‘green’ vehicle would have been significant. Generating the electricity which charges the battery largely comes with its own environmental impact, too. But it’s the material make-up of the battery itself which is becoming so contentious in the drive to more sustainable modes of transport.
The global demand for lithium – the soft, white metal common to all current rechargeable batteries – is predicted to rise over 40 times by 2040, driven almost exclusively by the shift to electric vehicles. It’s so precious, it’s been dubbed “white gold”. But in a recent report by the University Of California, in each of the four cases of lithium mining in Argentina, Chile, the United States, and Portugal they examined, there were hugely worrying implications for drought intensity, ecosystem biodiversity, and the people who live and work near or on these mines.
Feel so secure about your green choices now? Proponents of internal combustion engine vehicles argue that EVs are just as bad for the environment, just in different ways. The problem is, they may actually have a point. But a forthcoming UAE-based lithium refinery can perhaps give us more hope that the sustainable choices we make can stand up all the way along the supply chain.
Joe Walsh is managing director of Lepidico, a self-described lithium and critical metals “developer”.
“The harsh reality,” he points out, “is that if you want your EV car – or even your smartphone – then mining is essential. If the world is going to meet Net Zero by 2050 it will need more than 3,000 new large scale mining operations across a whole range of commodities. But, we at Lepidico really do think that modern-day mining should be pretty sustainable.”
If “pretty” seems to be doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence, it’s worth noting that Lepidico do have a patented set of clean technologies, and they don’t involve the widely-publicized, environmentally damaging process where brine is pumped out from underneath salt flats and left to evaporate in huge pools, eventually forming the toxic mixture which develops lithium salts. For a tonne of lithium, up to 2 million litres of water is required.
Instead, Lepidico extract lithium from lepidolite and other lithium micas found in rock. Their practice, in its first phase, is more akin to quarrying.
And Lepidico have shared pictures of the actual mine (in Namibia) on their website, which is on a brownfield site and will come with education, economic and infrastructure support for the local community. The concentrator water they need to use for mining will be 85 percent recycled, and once it’s been mined, the site will be returned to agriculture.
How can we know all this will happen without actually traveling to a remote corner of Namibia to find out? Walsh explains that the operation in Namibia is targeted to be core-funded by the US Government’s International Development Finance Corporation, which has stringent environmental and social safeguards, with human and worker rights embedded into their requirements.
It produces a gypsum that can be used as either a soil conditioning agent or in construction including plaster board” says Walsh. “A silica that can be used as a construction material to reduce cement content in concrete and reduce its carbon footprint. And a premium potash fertilizer. We’ve seen great demand for all these products in the UAE, so it’s a fabulous location for doing chemical conversions like ours.”
So the actual mining part sounds promising from an environmental and social point of view. But actually refining it into the product used in batteries comes with environmental concerns too. Walsh says that Chinese companies use a technique called roasting. “It’s very energy intensive, and not very environmentally astute,” he says.
What Lepidico does, and the reason they’re going to do so in Abu Dhabi, is more interesting. It’s a process that also uses less power than roasting.
“We use quite a lot of sulphuric acid, lime and limestone, and we need to be close to affordable, abundant sources of these raw materials,” he explains. “Abu Dhabi is actually the world’s largest manufacturer of sulfur from its sour gas operations. There are vast limestone resources in Ras Al Khaimah. And there’s obviously an abundance of cheap energy to power it all – but we want to be able to substitute natural gas for green hydrogen, an industry where the UAE is also making a big push.”
What might also make you feel better about Lepidico lithium in your battery is that the by-products won’t end up destroying local habitats in waste disposal either.
“It produces a gypsum that can be used as a fertilizer as well as in the production of plaster, drywall and chalk,” says Walsh. “A silica that can be used as a construction material to reduce cement content in concrete and reduce its carbon footprint. And a sulfate of premium potash fertilizer. We’ve seen great demand for all these products inthe UAE, so it’s a fabulous location for doing chemical conversions like ours.”
And there’s another business case for Lepidico to have strong environmental and social credentials; increasingly people, companies and regulatory authorities will expect nothing less.
“It’s become not just a critical part of our business strategy, but part of our business DNA,” admits Walsh.
Take EV company Polestar. They do seem to recognize that there’s no use making a big play of their commitment to sustainability if a key component of making the actual car move uses disastrous social-environmental practices. In a recent interview, Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath talked about his dream of a truly emission-free car; but for now they use blockchain software supplied by Circulor to accurately track micas and cobalt throughout the supply chain. This means Polestar can reassure their customers that some of their components are responsibly sourced.
Circulor’s Ellen Carey, VP of Public Affairs & Strategy, likens their work to baking a cake; you know what you need to make the cake and what shop you bought the ingredients from. But with this added level of data attributed in the production process, you’d also know how the ingredients themselves were made and sourced, too. What Polestar do is ask their suppliers to sign up to Circulor’s platform.
“If you’re talking about a battery and its five critical minerals – lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, manganese – you would have five different procurement chains, and you would see those changing three to five times over the course of the year,” says Carey. “Only about six per cent of automakers know right to the source itself who is in their supply chain – but the critical thing here is that increasingly, they are becoming accountable for all of it.”
Being able to interrogate every part of the supply chain is, then, incredibly useful – and although Circulor themselves wouldn’t raise a concern about a specific mine, their software does flag up anomalies in procurement that don’t correspond to the agreed business logic. So if a different material was added or the timescales didn’t add up, then it’s likely that supply chain requires more investigation.
Often, this process detects fraud, which will become increasingly important given a recent study found up to 40 per cent of the production of low-carbon materials will originate in countries “with weak governance now”.
Carey thinks this will be the standard for doing business in EV relatively quickly, not least because forthcoming EU regulations will require a digital passport for every battery placed into service.
“So I’ll scan the barcode on the battery pack, and I’ll be able to see what the materials are, the embedded carbon produced in manufacturing, that the lithium production is certificated, that there was no child labour, and so on,” explains Carey.
All of this information will, eventually, be able to assist a battery recycler, too, when they’re working out the most efficient way to re-use the materials.
But ultimately, whenever we choose to make a journey in a car, it will come at an environmental cost to somewhere or someone – whether it’s powered by batteries or petrol. It does at least feel like the greater transparency Circulor enables will eventually lead to better behavior in terms of the Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) framework, by everyone from mining companies to car manufacturers to drivers themselves.
“There’s a growing understanding that claims without data are no longer acceptable,” agrees Carey. “We’ve had this whole period of time where companies in this space have promised ‘ok, we’re going to get to this place with our ESG standards’.”
“There’s been a reassessment of that I think, to people wanting to know where companies are now, and exactly how they are tracking to get to their milestones.”
A world, then, in which you’d know that responsible Lepidico lithium was in your car battery, might not be so far away. Phew. You drive a sustainable car after all.
Ben East has been writing about books, culture, travel and wellbeing in the Middle East for 15 years. When he’s not reading, he’s busy finding exciting places to ride his bikes.