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Insight into lithium mining in Serbia, challenges and potentials vs environment

Controversies about the production and use of lithium do not stop, and the influential Financial Times warns that there is no longer a great justification for continuing to invest in battery production, because there are already “signals that the fierce competition between manufacturers is beginning to squeeze their profit margins” and that in this battle to be “a small number of winners, many losers and a lot of blood on the floor”. Does anyone in the government here think about these trends?

And does he know that Volkswagen has delayed investment in new electric car factories because of the slow uptake of such vehicles in Europe and because “there is no commercial reason to decide on additional locations for them in Europe at the moment”?

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And instead of doing a study on the harmful consequences of lithium mining and production on the environment or hiring independent advisers for it, the government in Serbia relies on the Rio Tinto study. Will the company whose environmental protection would cost billions of dollars be honest in that assessment? Can such a commissioned study be trusted? Is the assessment of yourself appropriate and acceptable? Aside from the fact that the future will belong to a new technology based on graphene and sodium (sodium).

The production of batteries and electric-powered cars is the mantra of many politicians, and it remains to be seen what kind of consequences this will have, not only on consumers and employment, but also on the entire economy, because there are about 7,000 electric cars, and about 32,000 on liquid fuels. parts. At the same time, electric ones are more than 30 percent more expensive than the same liquid fuel model, and their production requires fewer workers, they are easy to maintain, so fewer mechanics will be needed. If damaged, batteries are usually beyond repair and must be replaced, and they are one of the most expensive parts. This is why the insurance prices for electric cars are about 30 percent higher than for the same gasoline and diesel models.

An example that Serbia should follow

The life of the battery is between 10 and 20 years, and there is also a problem when it discharges while driving: where to charge it and how long it takes. And how is the electricity produced to charge them, in coal-fired power plants that pollute the environment or otherwise?

The government in Serbia loudly boasts that it accepts high Western standards, including technological. Here is an excellent example that Serbia should follow, from the American state of Maine. It banned the opening of a large lithium mine on private land and in a remote location. They didn’t want an open pit mine, and that was the only way to make it profitable, with the message “It’s fine for them to develop mines, but not in my backyard”.

The big wave and global pressure to create a new “green economy” has a very strange thing in the background – the “loud silence” of the huge global corporations that produce liquid fuels. These economic giants base their assets and power on the production and sale of fuel, so the question arises, what will be left for them if life is shifted to electric vehicles? Why then have they been silent for a long time? Are they investing in battery production? Or do they have no confidence that electric vehicles will take off en masse? Or are they doing something that escapes the attention of both authorities and analysts?

Economic policymakers are often divided, on the one hand, they demand saving electricity (bulbs, household appliances, public lighting…), and at the same time, they give huge subsidies for the production of electric cars, which consume large amounts of electricity. And what kind of economic policy is that? What is its goal? Is electricity produced in coal-fired thermal power plants and at what price? Which lobbies influence it? Is there corruption? What should be done?

In its editorial, the London Economist warns of the challenge that overindulgence in lithium can have. “In addition to its abundance, sodium (sodium) has other benefits. The best lithium batteries use cobalt and nickel in their electrodes. Nickel, as well as lithium, is not present in large quantities. Mining on land pollutes the environment. Proposals to take it from the seabed instead have caused controversy. Meanwhile, much of the world’s cobalt is extracted from small mines in DR Congo, where child labour is common and working conditions are appalling. Sodium batteries, by contrast, can use electrodes made of iron and manganese, which are abundant and not controversial. Since the chemical components are cheap, the increase in production should allow the manufactured batteries to cost less than their lithium counterparts,” writes the Economist.

Sodium-based batteries have clear advantages – there is at least 500 times more sodium in nature than lithium. Sea water is abundant in sodium, its processing is significantly less dangerous for the environment, and production costs are much lower, therefore the price of those batteries, and disposal costs after use are low compared to lithium batteries. Sodium indeed has several disadvantages – it is heavier, so with a lithium battery of the same weight, you can cover twice the distance. In addition, sodium batteries can be charged 5,000 times, and lithium up to 10,000 times. Finally, sodium-based technology started to develop much later, so lithium currently has a few decades ahead, but circumstances are constantly changing.

After mining, tailings pollute for another 4,000 years

Western countries has done almost everything they can to reduce its dependence on gas and oil imports from Russia and now fears a similar dependence if it relies on China, which refines the most lithium. Australia exports huge amounts of lithium ore but does not refine it. This activity, polluting the environment, despite its vast and uninhabited expanse, is left to China, which controls 61 percent of global lithium refining capacity and 79 percent of the global lithium battery supply chain.

Estimates show that in the case of an increase in the prices of lithium, cobalt and nickel, the production of batteries based on sodium, which is much cleaner, has a bright and accelerated future, and the market situation is constantly changing. In 2023, for example, sales of electric cars in China fell, and the result was a sharp drop in the price of cobalt and especially nickel, by 40 percent and lithium by 70 percent.

A special problem is the tailings after mining and lithium production, which pollute the environment for up to the next 4,000 years, so the Jadar project would be a danger to the watercourses leading to Belgrade and further downstream to the border. Who will manage it, even according to the highest standards? It is a very unprofitable management activity. In cutting budget funds, it can be the first on the list. Even if the tailings manager is a new former manager of a roastery or a driver, there is reason for great concern.

Michael Kelly, Emeritus Professor of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, draws attention to an interesting lesson from the recent past. He compares the current preference for battery-electric vehicles to the Franco-British Concorde project of the 1960s and 1970s. The governments of these two countries have invested huge public funds to build a supersonic plane that can provide such a trip to anyone. The Soviets did the same with their Tupolev-144. The Americans tried something similar, but they withdrew right at the beginning because they did not see the commercial success of such a project.

When supersonic commercial flights between Europe, on the one hand, and America and the Far East, on the other, began, environmental protection problems arose, and due to the high noise during takeoff and breaking of the sound barrier, flights were diverted to longer routes over the ocean. Concorde travel costs were high, tickets were expensive, so only the wealthy could afford such flights. After only 27 years, the Concorde was withdrawn from service in 2003. It was a wonderful example of the success of technology, but it failed as a commercial project. The Tu-144 was even less successful, having only 55 commercial flights.

What is the current situation with electric cars? Similar to the first years of the Concorde project – billions of dollars and euros are invested in research, development and production. Due to the high price, only the wealthy can buy such vehicles and use them for local driving, while at the same time having another liquid fuel vehicle for longer drives. Consumers are willing to pay more for a certain product if they are convinced that they are getting something more and better compared to the previous one.

However, big obstacles are not only the price of such vehicles but also the trouble of charging the battery, self-ignition, and the cost of insurance and service. Their sales have slowed down and stalled, unsold vehicles are piling up in warehouses despite tempting subsidies for their purchase. Many manufacturers are beginning to rethink plans. Kelly believes that the most likely outcome of this story will be a similar ending to the Concorde. If the authorities force citizens to buy only battery-powered cars, then they should remember the situation in Cuba. Liquid fuel cars have been driven with careful maintenance for more than three generations since the US cut off the supply of parts and new vehicles.

What would be better?

The production of lithium and rare elements is strongly developed in China, but this also has its negative side, which is reflected in the great pollution of the environment. In such areas, food production is impossible, so China imports a good part of its food consumption. Here is a great opportunity for exporting food from Serbia to China. There is no amount of food that Serbia can produce without China importing it. The free trade agreement between China and Serbia provides a huge long-term opportunity for exports to China. Especially since it is increasingly certain that Serbia’s accession to the European Union is unlikely.

What should Serbia do in such a situation? Should it accept the mining and processing of lithium (including the recycling of old batteries) that pollutes the environment, creates tailings that remain like this for millennia, shuts down agricultural production, poisons watercourses and, related to this, the violent expulsion of the population from centuries-old hearths and that, as once said President Vučić on the occasion, in a larger number “than planned”.

Should we expose ourselves to the danger associated with possible corruption, as was the recent case in Portugal? Should we pollute our environment so that wealthy Germans, Swedes, French or Americans drive electric cars and their children breathe clean air and drink clean water? Or do something else?

Instead of mining lithium in Serbia and polluting the environment, it would be incomparably better to build a pipeline from Jadro to Zrenjanin that will bring clean water to Zrenjanin. The inhabitants of this Banat city did not drink clean water from the tap for a whole generation! The promised water purification plants never arrive, and they use not only chemicals but also a lot of energy. It would be better for everyone if Jadar Water went to Banat. In this way, new domestic jobs would be created, everything would remain clean and domestic, and there would be no pollution of the environment. It is necessary for everyone, and it does not bother anyone. And overpriced electric cars should be bought and driven by those who can afford them.


Source: Serbia Energy

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