Why don't magnets die like batteries

Lithium mining in South AmericaThe downside of the energy transition

The salt deserts of Argentina are located in the high mountains at almost 4,000 meters. The air is poor in oxygen and it is mostly cool and dry. A dashing wind blows around the bare mountain slopes, from which meter-high cacti grow. The rock formations shimmer in color in the mountain sun and only a few roads run through the lonely volcanic landscape. It is home to the Kollas, one of the few indigenous peoples left in South America. They live from handicrafts and llama breeding and cultivate their millennia-old culture. But right now the Kolla communities are afraid of losing their home. Many of them see their livelihoods in danger.

"I used to have 230 llamas, but that was before the mining company started working here. Since then, the animals have died. The little ones are born and die. It has been this way for two years. They are born with disabilities and diseases, with crooked ones Legs and cysts. They die from those after a short time. "

100,000 Kollas live in the so-called "lithium triangle"

Nieves Guitian looks desperate. The llama shepherdess has lived in the Argentine high desert Puna in the northeast of the country since she was born more than 70 years ago. Her narrow dark eyes look shyly from under a black hat. Guitian tells how her homeland has changed since the foreign companies began mining lithium in her neighborhood.

"With the companies came the big machines. And they came closer and closer. I didn't understand what was happening to my country. They produced an incredible amount of dust and churned up the subsoil. We also have problems with the water. The machines are digging the entire landscape um. They drive the animals away and destroy their watering holes. "

Lithium mining in the Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia, October 2009 (AFP / Aizar Raldes)

Like Nieves Guitian, around 100,000 Kollas live on the three-country border between Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. The region bears the name "Lithium Triangle" because hundreds of thousands of tons of the light metal are believed to be underground. In total, 70 percent of the world's deposits are said to be there.

10 kilos of lithium for an electric car battery

Lithium is used to make batteries. Large industrial nations like the USA, China, but also European countries increasingly want to convert their traffic to electric mobility in order to stop the pollution of the cities and to protect the climate. Lithium-ion batteries are required for vehicles that run on electricity instead of diesel or gasoline. Manufacturers need around ten kilos of lithium for a single electric car battery for an electric car. Global lithium mining has more than doubled since 2016 alone, and experts estimate that by 2030 more than 240,000 tons of lithium will be used in the automotive industry every year. This growing need for lithium is likely to become a problem for the indigenous people of Argentina.

Everything changed for Nieves Guitian with the mining of lithium in their neighborhood. From their small farm you have a direct view of the lithium factory of the Australian mining company Orocobre.

The hydrologist Marcelo Sticco works for the University of Buenos Aires and takes care of the problems of the indigenous communities in his free time. At the request of the Kolla communities, he wrote two reports on the consequences of lithium mining in the Puna.

Marcelo Sticco is not an environmental activist. But what happens here in the high desert Puna makes him angry, says the 55-year-old. The scientist suspects that the fine dust that the old Kolla woman reports and from which her llamas and the wild vicunas - a species of camel - die could be the basic sodium hydroxide. This is needed for the chemical treatment of the lithium. Sticco assumes that the substance is not stored inside the factory building, but in the open. Therefore, the fine grains of dust would be distributed over the entire mountain basin.

"I just wonder why these very successful companies are not able to invest in a minimum of security measures. This zone is a nature reserve. Wild animals like the vicuñas are protected by law. But when the water is contaminated and the air." is contaminated, it has to be investigated by the state. But that doesn't happen. "

The old herdsman Nieves Guitian shows us a watering hole where her llamas usually drink. Two small puddles of water can be seen, the ground around them is churned, the newly laid out transport routes for the trucks run through the landscape everywhere.

Freshwater contamination

"The problem is that the machines completely plow the subsoil in order to build new wells or transport routes. As a result, they destroy the natural barriers between salt and fresh water and contaminate the water. They also drill for fresh water for lithium production. But that has consequences for the wells of the residents and the natural groundwater resources. And no one sees this here. That makes me angry! It is desperate. "

Hombre Muerto salt lake, Catamarca province, Antofagasta de la Sierra region, an important region for the mining of lithium (imago / Jutta Riegel)

The hydrologist takes out a measuring device and checks the salinity of the two water points. One contains drinking water. The other contains so much salt that the meter can no longer display the exact value. Marcelo Sticco is concerned. His worst fears have been confirmed.

"In 2012, together with colleagues, I did the first study on the hydrological conditions in the Kolla region. We found out that contamination of the freshwater by lithium production is very likely."

Back then, the scientists wrote letters to companies and ministries, gave lectures and warned of an exodus from the region. But the response was poor. To this day, Marcelo Sticco is one of the few independent hydrologists who deals with lithium production in the region and the consequences for freshwater supplies.

"We are in an arid region where it rains below average. Only around five percent of the little rain penetrates the earth at all. These underground reserves have formed over thousands of years. The problem is that salt water and fresh water in this one Region occur in a fragile natural equilibrium. The lithium production sinks the natural water level. As a result, the salt water mixes with the fresh water. This contamination is irreversible, the region irretrievably loses its drinking water reserves. "

According to the hydrologist, the freshwater losses could soon make life in the region impossible. Mining company Sales Jujuy is one of the leading lithium producers in the region - a consortium that includes Australian company Orocobre and Japanese automaker Toyota. According to Sales Jujuy, it needs up to 80,000 liters of fresh water per hour to extract the salt mass from the underground. The brine is then pumped into basins the size of football fields, where it evaporates.

The draining and salting of natural freshwater resources is not mentioned in the environmental impact reports of the companies. The Canadian mining company Lithium Americas, which has its boreholes right next to Sales Jujuy, said on request that it was the first time to hear about the water problem. Lithium Americas also has the German automaker BMW under contract. While BMW is only a buyer of lithium, the Japanese automaker Toyota promotes lithium itself. No one at Sales Juyjuy or Toyota was willing to be interviewed for this program.

$ 24 million in net income in six months

Business with lithium is booming. This was shown once again in February when the head of the Australian mining company Orocobre, Martín Perez de Solay, presented the semi-annual report:

"That was another very strong six months due to a good profit margin of $ 8,000 per tonne of lithium. That gave us revenues of $ 63 million. The price for lithium is $ 12,295 per ton."

Lithium carbonate from the Uyuni salt flat south of La Paz, Bolivion (AFP / Aizar Raldes)

Orocobre made a net profit of $ 24 million in six months. The company declined an interview or a factory tour for this program. Two months after the request, a company spokesman stated by email:

"Sales de Jujuy has an active and well-funded shared value program for the sustainable development of local communities. We strengthen the communities through training and encourage them to participate in these activities."

While the catastrophic conditions in cobalt production are well known in countries like the Congo, lithium production is generally considered environmentally friendly. The reason for this is the so-called "energy-saving evaporation technology" with which the lithium extracted from the salt flats is obtained. The water loss often plays a subordinate role. The lithium boom is only just getting started in Germany.

"We are currently experiencing that the demand for mobile and stationary power storage is growing rapidly. Battery production is becoming an essential part of the industrial value chain worldwide. Because battery applications are becoming the norm in the context of the energy transition, in the context of electromobility, but also in many other industrial areas. "

So Federal Minister of Economics Peter Altmaier from the CDU at the networking conference electromobility in November last year. The federal government wants to invest one billion euros in battery cell production.

Demand standards in lithium production

Matthias Buchert from the Öko-Institut was one of the people who dealt with the downsides of battery production at an early stage. In a report for the Agora Energiewende think tank, the doctor of chemistry advocates ecological standards in lithium extraction.

"The automotive industry has a responsibility here. If the car giants such as VW, BMW, Toyota or Daimler join forces, they would have the buying power to demand demanding standards in lithium production."

Sustainability researcher Matthias Buchert estimates that there could be a "race" for lithium production in the coming years: even in European countries such as Portugal and Germany, companies would be looking for lithium deposits.

However, the largest stocks are in South America - and demand is growing rapidly. That is why mining companies want to expand production in Argentina as quickly as possible. This is another reason why the indigenous Kolla communities in the neighborhood are alarmed.

For a few months now, the Kolla communities have been organizing to take action against the mining companies. On a sunny day in March, around 20 representatives from the surrounding villages meet in Tusaquilla. The town of 200 souls is around 40 minutes' drive from the lithium factory in Olaroz. They are the toughest opponents of lithium production. So far they have prevented commercial production on a neighboring salt flat - called Salinas Grandes.

The elected parish speaker of the Kolla, Clemente Flores, opens the meeting. Today the representatives of the communities will hear a lecture by Marcelo Sticco, the hydrologist from Buenos Aires. The Kolla representatives are outraged by what they hear. They are stunned that neither companies nor politicians are warning them of the consequences. Your spokesman, Clemente Flores, organized last week's protests. In doing so, the communities stopped the test drilling of a Canadian company - at least temporarily.

"The switch to the electric car will kill us"

"At first we were simply dissatisfied that no one asked us. There was no official consultation of the municipalities, which is even required by international law. The only thing we really knew was that the state wants batteries. But we cannot do batteries eat. We eat what we grow here. "

So far, the government has not reacted to the road blockades and demonstrations against investors. The local governor even declared lithium production to be the key economic industry of the future. Clemente Flores, the spokesman for a total of 33 parishes in Salinas Grandes, wants to prevent lithium production. And it also has a message for Europe:

"The mining of lithium for Europe and the switch to electric cars will kill our communities and our landscape. And so far we haven't known any cars here. Especially no electric cars - we only know them from photos. You think you can save humanity with them, but you will kill us all. "

Should the predictions of the hydrologist Marcelo Sticco come true, Clemente Flores and his parishioners will lose everything they have. Because without fresh water, they cannot keep llamas or farm. They would have to leave their homeland, which their ancestors have lived in for thousands of years.

Alternative procedures would be possible

The current evaporation technology used to mine lithium is also causing problems in other countries such as Chile. There the Atacameños people protested against the massive consumption of water in the adjacent Atacama Desert. There are even alternatives. A Canadian company recently presented a technology in which the lithium is extracted directly from the liquid with the help of nanotechnology and the remaining water is pumped back underground. This prevents the problematic lowering of the water level, and the drinking water reserves are preserved.

"Companies make a lot of profit with the old technology. That is why they hold on to it. They even proclaim that it is the most ecological because it is based on evaporation. There is no indication in the financial reports of the companies that it is in invest the new processes. "

A Bolivian worker mining lithium (picture alliance / dpa / Javier Mamani)

A German company also plans to mine lithium in Bolivia soon. The Baden-Württemberg company ACISA announced in November that it would be mining lithium together with a Bolivian state-owned company from 2022. A company spokesman replied in writing to the Deutschlandfunk's request that the extraction was one hundred percent sustainable, since in Bolivia it is a so-called "residual brine" from salt mining. Thanks to a new technology specially developed for the project, the water will also be recovered. The hydrologist Marcelo Sticco considers this technology to be future-proof:

"I am not generally against resource extraction or lithium production. We need lithium for the energy transition - but we also have to pay attention to how it is extracted."

In Argentina, however, there are no signs of a trend reversal in lithium production. At the so-called national lithium table, a high-level meeting of ministers and regional politicians, Argentina's President Mauricio Macri announced that 100,000 tons of lithium would be mined in the Puna region over the next four years. The annual global production of lithium is currently 70,000 tons.

Involve indigenous communities

The Kolla communities see Macri's plans as a challenge. You have already sued the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights against the granting of licenses by the Argentine state. The basis for this is a convention of the International Labor Organization (ILO). Accordingly, companies and politicians must adequately inform indigenous communities about commercial projects and educate them about the consequences.

Alicia Chalabe represents the Kolla communities in court: "According to ILO 169, the indigenous communities have a right to consultation when companies want to carry out projects on their land. This was never enforced by the local government To include a drilling permit in the process - that didn't happen in Salinas Grandes. "

The environmental attorney has been in legal dispute with the authorities for years. The last hope now is the interpretation of international law. However, the process can take years. Alicia Chalabe is pessimistic:

"There will definitely be a conflict. So far it was only legal - but now anything is possible. The government is opposed to us and is outraged by our interpretation of the law. The politicians want to enforce lithium production under all circumstances. All of that is a real bungling. "

If the Kolla communities are right, this could invalidate the licenses issued for lithium mining. That would mean the end of the lithium boom in Argentina for the time being.