Analytical Instrumentation

  • What is "White Oil"?

What is "White Oil"?

Jan 17 2021 Read 1477 Times

The electric vehicle movement is quickly gaining momentum, but as the world transitions to a “greener” future some critics are warning heightened demand for lithium will compromise the sustainability of EVs. The alkali metal is a key component in the manufacturing of rechargeable electric car batteries, with best-selling models such as the Tesla Model S and Nissan Leaf powered by lithium batteries.

Found in clay and rock deposits as well as liquid brine, lithium is a lightweight metal with the capacity to store a large amount of energy. Demand for lithium has sparked a mining boom and led to the resource becoming referred to as “white oil”. It will play a critical role in supporting the EV revolution, with auto giant Volkswagen describing lithium as the “irreplaceable element of the electric era.”

Demand for lithium set to surge

By 2030 analysts expect European EV ownership will jump to around 40 million. Though despite the huge increase in electric vehicles the continent imports almost 100% of battery-grade lithium. More than half of the world’s lithium supply is produced in Australia, with other key suppliers including Chile, China and Argentina. Over the next four years demand for lithium is expected to double, with manufacturing capacity in China alone set to hit 575.3 gigawatt hours (GWh) by 2024.

Lithium boom sparks environmental and ethical concerns

While the final product is batteries that power zero-emissions vehicles, environmentalists warn the lithium mining boom will have severe environmental consequences. In countries such as Chile lithium mining is destroying delicate landscapes and encroaching on agricultural farms. There are also fears lithium mining could contaminate underground water sources, posing a serious threat to local communities.

There’s a fundamental question behind all this about the model of consumption and production that we now have, which is simply not sustainable,” said Riofrancos. “Everyone having an electric vehicle means an enormous amount of mining, refining and all the polluting activities that come with it.”

EV advocates stress lifetime emissions lower

Producers disagree, with British-based mining company Savannah asserting one of its proposed mines in Portugal will deliver enough lithium to manufacture enough battery packs prevent 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. EV supporters also say it’s important to look at the total lifetime emissions of vehicles, not simply the manufacturing footprint. For example, a recent survey estimated the total lifetime emissions of the new Nissan Leaf EV were three times lower than the average petrol or diesel powered car.

To find out more about the world’s growing environmental conscience don’t miss ‘The intersection of sustainability and tribology’ with insight from Koehler Instrument Company experts.

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