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Lithium-Ion; Pros and Cons.

July 20, 2021. Written by Ja-Mes "Jay" Watson, passionate engineer and recycler.

Lithium-ion batteries are an essential component of modern life. They are found in our most popular portable electronics including laptops, cellphones, tablets and music players. Due to their rechargeable capabilities, ease of manufacturing and charge capacity, Lithium-ion batteries are a steadfast and consistent component of our lives.

So why are lithium-ion batteries used in so many electronics?

  • Lithium-ion batteries hold their charge longer than traditional NiMH (Nickel-Metal Hydride) batteries. Lithium-ion batteries lose approximately 5 percent of its charge capacity per month, compared to 20 percent loss per month for NiMH batteries.

  • Lithium-ion batteries can handle hundreds of charge and discharge cycles

  • Lithium-ion batteries can be used without a complete charge

  • Amongst a number of additional benefits, lithium-ion batteries are more lightweight than traditional batteries, making them ideal for portable electronic design.

However, there are a few drawbacks that lithium-ion battery users should be aware. Lithium-ion batteries;

  • Have an increased potential of bursting into flames if the battery pack fails

  • Degrade much faster than normal when exposed to high temperatures

  • Have a constrained life-cycle of two or three years from manufactured date

Above: Graphic showing electrochemical process of charging/discharging lithium-ion batteries. An electrolyte and separator keep the anode and cathode spaced. However, the separator allows for the free passing of ions to bond to one another creating a negative and positive current.

So what is all the fuss about now?

Global demand for lithium is expected to reach record numbers as more electric vehicles hit the road. However, this desire must match the sustainability of humans and the environment to benefit all parties involved. There are tragic costs to our global demand for portable electronics. Lithium, and other precious metals and minerals need to be mined for our use. Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo produce approximately 50 percent of the world’s Cobalt, which is a key element in the chemical process needed to produce lithium-ion batteries. Ill-prepared, often without shoes or safety equipment, Congolese miners travel hundreds of feet underground to extract Cobalt for global electronics production. Additionally, child labor and exploitation is a constant staple of Cobalt mining with some estimates showing that over 40,000 children work in these extremely dangerous mines.

Above: Congolese children work the Cobalt mines producing the precious mineral needed in electronics manufacturing. The Democratic Republic of Congo produces more than half the globe's cobalt.

Countries such as Chile and Argentina produce more than half the globe’s lithium. However, this production comes at the expense of their local environment. Farmers and herders compete with miners for water. Approximately 2 million liters of water are needed to produce one ton of lithium. Mining activities in those countries have resulted in the depletion of groundwater, soil contamination, and degradation resulting in the forced relocation of its inhabitants.

Above: Workers tend the lithium brine pits used in the mass production of raw lithium used in electronics manufacturing. Lithium brine pits like the one above use an extensive amount of natural resources, like water, to produce the precious mineral needed in lithium-ion battery technology.

So what can we do to help mitigate the ill effects of global lithium production?

Lithium-ion production and its effects are a global challenge. All humans must shift our attitudes towards consumerism. Think twice about purchasing a new smartphone. Consider the natural resources used in the production of your smartphone (Copper, Gold, Silver, Palladium, Cobalt, Lithium, Tin, etc). Think about the forced labor used to mine the minerals needed for that device.

Next, take care of your device to ensure its longevity. The longer you have a device results in one less newly manufactured device. When your device finally gives out, recycle your electronic to ensure it is properly handled and the precious materials find a new home.

Jay Watson is owner/operator of STL SMARTphones LLC based in Saint Louis, Missouri. STL SMARTphones' mission is to repair, recycle and recycle electronics to extend their lifespan and prevent electronics from finding a home in the landfill.


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