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Last week, Serbian environmental protesters managed to suspend plans to allow Rio Tinto to mine one of Europe’s largest lithium deposits. However, the protests have continued.
The Serbian group Kreni-Promeni focuses its campaign on fears about pollution caused by mining companies. But there is an even broader and more internationally impactful concern about lithium mines: that mining lithium for use in batteries is likely to lead to global trade conflicts.
After COP26, the whole of Europe urgently needs to move towards the goal of obtaining 100% of its electricity from renewable energy. But renewable electricity is stored in batteries, and the vast majority of batteries use anodes and cathodes made of lithium and nickel.
Lithium is a rare metal. With limited resources to make batteries, global competition for them is likely to turn into aggressive practices, and certain countries are likely to turn into battlefields.
Battery war: the stage is now set
Serbia’s drive to exploit its lithium reserves appears to be driven by the desire to place the country in a stronger strategic position in Europe in anticipation of the escalating price of this natural resource over the next decade.
We have already seen China showing interest in moving into a position of access to global lithium supplies. It has committed billions of dollars to lithium projects in Latin America, where more than half of the world’s lithium reserves are in the mines of Chile and Bolivia.
And Chinese mining groups are reported to have been seeking opportunities in Afghanistan to access the country’s lithium deposits.
Battery trade wars can break out in Europe. Serbia is not the only European country with untapped lithium; the Czech Republic also has large deposits near its border with Germany.
This lithium has never been mined, but mining is likely to start soon, and Czech lithium mines are seen as great hope for the EU battery industry.
Green alternatives urgently needed
But the battery war does not have to become the dark side of green energy. Rather than relying on conventional batteries, Europe must urgently focus on developing alternatives to them.
Renewable energy is essential to our survival, but storing it in conventional batteries threatens to undermine the benefits. This is not just due to scarce resources; These batteries themselves are anything but green, and they are difficult to dispose of safely.
The number of batteries that we will need to achieve zero carbon emissions is absolutely huge. It’s not just about electric cars.
All electricity generated by wind or solar plants is not sent directly to national grids. Most of it is stored at sites in physical batteries, and the batteries are then transported to where the power is needed.
This is because pumping electricity directly into the grid is wasteful. If the grid does not need the power at any given time, all the electricity that has been produced is lost.
Work is already underway on developing alternatives to lithium batteries: cryogenic batteries are being developed, for example, that use low-temperature liquids such as liquid air or liquid nitrogen for energy storage. Another company has developed a battery that uses gravity technology.
Hydrogen fuel is not the way out
Another way to avoid having to store electricity from renewable sources in batteries is to use it directly at the production site to generate hydrogen fuel.
Hydrogen fuel can simply be stored in large containers, which means that it could effectively function as a ‘green battery’. It may be that hydrogen-powered vehicles, rather than electric vehicles, turn out to be the most ethical future.
This is not a perfect solution. Hydrogen fuel takes up too much physical space to be a viable option for smaller vehicles like cars. But it can power trains, buses, ships, and planes, reducing some of the battery’s storage pressure.
But we don’t have time to rely on hydrogen or a few forward-thinking companies working on amazing technologies for alternative batteries that may not be commercialized in a decade.
We must dedicate much more resources to the development of alternative batteries. If we don’t, the demand for batteries will skyrocket as our green power generation increases.
So the question of which country has the resources to make the most lithium batteries will determine who controls the green energy revolution.
Jordi Bruno is the director of global mining business development at RSK, an environmental company.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism