Everything you probably didn’t know about lithium and electric cars

BLACK, NOT GREEN. Prof. Dr Branimir Grgur.

If, in addition to 11,400 tons of metal lithium, 100,000 electric cars were produced annually in Serbia, this would increase carbon dioxide emissions by at least 1.15 million tons or by an additional 3.5 percent.

In addition to the justified concern for damage (pollution of underground and surface water, devastation of forests and agricultural land…) that can be produced by the mine and processing plants for obtaining compounds of lithium and boron in the Jadar valley, there are also less well-known harmful consequences that these activities, and possibly starting the production of electric cars in Serbia, can have.

According to data published in February 2021 by the Rio Sava Exploration company itself, the mine would annually produce about 60,000 tons of lithium carbonate (Li2CO2) or about 11,400 tons of metallic lithium. Without going into the issue of mining, the brochure states that the processing plant would consume… 80.8 million cubic meters of natural gas per year, which would increase the consumption of that energy source in Serbia by 3.1 percent, given that In 2020, 2,265.96 million cubic meters were consumed.

The annual emission of carbon dioxide CO2, the main cause of global warming, in the technological process of lithium carbonate and boric acid production would be between 526,000 and 620,000 tons, which is an increase of 1.22 to 1.44 percent of the total emission in Serbia, which in 2020 amounted to 43 million tons. In that estimate, in addition to CO2 emissions, due to the burning of 80.8 million cubic meters of natural gas and during the production of other necessary chemicals that would be used in the technology of obtaining lithium carbonate and boric acid, as well as the effects of the use of 60,000 tons of calcium oxide (quick lime ), 320,000 tons of sulfuric acid, 188,000 tons of different types of cement, 110,000 tons of sodium carbonate (Na2CO3) for the deposition of lithium carbonate, while on the other hand, the destruction of more than 520 hectares of forest and agricultural land will permanently destroy the assimilation of atmospheric carbon dioxide . This assessment does not include gas emissions from various means of transport, bulldozers, trucks, commercial passenger cars, necessary for the functioning of the mine, production plant and administration.

According to official announcements, Serbia is ready to invest significant funds in a gigafactory for the production of lithium-ion accumulator batteries (LIB), and later also electric cars. With an optimistic estimate that 100,000 electric cars with a 50kWh energy battery will be produced annually, this would increase carbon dioxide emissions by an additional 500,000 tons or 1.16 percent, as it is known that one kWh energy batteries emit about 100 kilograms of CO2 during production. For the production of electric cars without batteries, which include various metals, plastics, glass, rubber, approximately five to six tons of CO2 are emitted per vehicle, or 500,000 to 600,000 tons for 100,000 vehicles, which would increase emissions by 1.16 to 1.4 percent.

All together, the production of lithium and 100,000 electric cars would annually emit about 1,150,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, which means that the annual emission of greenhouse gases would increase by at least 3.5 percent.

In other words, each car would emit about 11,500 kilograms of CO2. The same amount of CO2 would be emitted by the consumption of 4,420 liters of diesel in ordinary cars (a liter of diesel releases 2.6 kilograms of CO2). This means that with an average consumption of five liters per 100 kilometers, a diesel car would travel 88,400 kilometers before the electric car even leaves the factory.

The EU is planning or has introduced taxes of 50 euros per ton of CO2, so increased emissions would expose Serbia to a cost of at least 75 million euros per year (50 euros times 1,150,000 tons). In addition, it should be noted that the production of just one kWh of lithium-ion battery requires 328kWh of different types of energy, and Serbia, in addition to importing gas and oil, has been importing electricity for more than a year, and the prices of all energy products are at record levels.

With all that, even if Serbia were to produce 100,000 electric cars a year, which is unlikely, with a 50kWh battery, it would require about 800 tons of lithium metal. So, only seven percent of the total annual production in Jadar, while Rio Tinto could sell the remaining 93 percent to whoever it wants. Of course, Serbia would also buy lithium from them at realistic, market prices.

In addition to lithium (its share ranges from four to ten percent), positive (cathode) materials contain many other expensive and rare metals, cobalt, manganese and nickel, which Serbia does not have and would have to be imported, and the price of cobalt on the world market has varied from 30,000 to 90,000 dollars per ton in the last five years…

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