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Huge pools of brine containing lithium carbonate and mounds of salt by-products stretch across a lithium mine in Chile's Atacama Desert in Salar de Atacama, Chili in October, 2022.

The effort to shift the U.S. economy off fossil fuels and avoid the most disastrous impacts of climate change hinges on the third element of the periodic table. Lithium, the soft, silvery-white metal used in electric car batteries, was endowed by nature with miraculous properties. At around half a gram per cubic centimeter, it’s the lightest metal on Earth and is extremely energy-dense, making it ideal for manufacturing batteries with a long life. 

The problem is, lithium comes with its own set of troubles: Mining the metal is often devastating for the environment and the people who live nearby, since it’s water intensive and risks permanently damaging the land. The industry also has an outsized impact on Native Americans, with three-quarters of all known U.S. deposits located near tribal land. 

Demand for lithium is expected to skyrocket in the coming decades (up to 4,000 percent according to one estimate), which will require many new mines to meet it (more than 70 by 2025). These estimates assume the number of cars on the road will remain constant, so ... Read more

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