Toxic Dust and Brine: Minerals for Energy Storage

We’re entering the age of massive mobile electric energy storage units, in the form of lithium ion batteries in vehicles. These tremendous battery packs make up a significant fraction of the weight of electric vehicle, and can contain elements like cobalt, graphite, manganese, and nickel, in addition to lithium and others. Electric vehicles made up over 5% of global vehicle sales in 2020, and sales doubled again in 2021. These numbers will likely surge more, if all gas-powered vehicles are retired soon (as required by law in an increasing number of countries). We must interrogate the current systems for mining of these materials, including impacts on land, water, air and workers, in order to assure that any increased mining can occur in as just a manner as possible.

Co Co.: Congolese Cobalt, Copper and Coltan

In the last chapter, we showed how cobalt is used to help to stabilize and extend the lifetime of lithium ion batteries, which are each technological shortcomings of the current batteries. A 100 kWh electric vehicle battery can have up to 20 kg of cobalt in it. In 2020, 67% of cobalt mined worldwide was from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Second in the world, Russia extracted less than one-tenth of this amount.

The DRC is rich in other minerals as well. Coltan is an ore from which niobium and tantalum are extracted, each used in energy technologies. Copper is an excellent conductor of electricity and is used in many aspects of renewable energy systems. Tungsten, tin, gold and diamonds are among the other valuable substances that are mined in the country that is said to be the richest in the world for mineral resources.

By more traditional definitions of wealth, DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world. The country consistently ranks in the bottom five in per capita gross domestic product measured by purchasing power parity, the measure that most approximates what people can buy. The country has also suffered the horrors of several civil wars, as well as a brutal history of colonization. The king of Belgium claimed the Congo as his own private property in 1885, and oversaw decades of forced labor and torture of locals in order to extract resources like rubber.

Today, many Congolese cobalt miners work in toxic conditions that slowly degrade their health, and where there is also a high risk of accidents. Cobalt appears in heterogenite, which is mined in the reddish brown soils in the southern part of the country. In addition to several large corporate mines, there are countless artisanal mines, which are set up informally by prospectors working independently. A set of mining equipment costs a Congolese around $50, so a farmer who is considering becoming a miner must make a substantial investment. Their choice is not always reversible. Prices are volatile, tripling between late 2016 and 2018 before tumbling back downwards. Those who left their plows in the field to dig during cobalt or coltan booms have often found themselves in dire straits when mineral prices decrease. 

In a neighborhood in the city of Kolwezi, a resident was digging a pit toilet in their yard and struck a particularly rich vein of heterogenite. Fast forward a few months, and the entire community is dotted with artisanal mines, in the yards of residents who still were living there. Since workers often don’t have protective equipment like gloves or masks, there are severe health effects. Even non-miners in the area of mines are affected by the dust that settles. Since children are especially affected by toxic pollutants, neighborhood mines often hurt local youth the worst. These mines can reach 30 meters deep (in other locales artisanal mines can reach 100 meters), and snake underneath other houses, often with little support. The risk of collapse is substantial. Women and children as young as 7 work to haul, wash and sort rocks.

Amnesty International’s 2016 report accused companies of turning a blind eye to human rights violations within their supply chain. In the words of Siddhartha Kara, a modern slavery expert who has studied the DRC mines, “any company sourcing cobalt from DRC must establish an independent, third-party system of verification that all mineral supply chains are cleansed of exploitation, cruelty, slavery, and child labour. They must invest whatever is needed to ensure the decent pay, safe and dignified working conditions, healthcare, education and general wellbeing of the people whose cheap labour they rely on.” Lawsuits have been filed against Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla, and these companies have filed motions to dismiss. Recent industry-led “clean cobalt” initiatives have been criticized for ineffectiveness and passing on costs of monitoring programs to small-scale miners. 

The formal mining operations in the region outfit their workers with safety equipment, but pay extremely small wages. Subcontractors are often used as a layer of disconnect between companies who claim to monitor their supply chain and highly exploited workers. The companies participating in these operations are frequently criticized for reneging on promises to contribute to local infrastructure, and for highly exploitative contracts that leave the DRC with only a fraction of the worth of the mineral. 

All Eyes on Li

Depending on the chemistry, a 100 kWh long-range electric vehicle battery pack can contain 10-20 kg of the third-lightest element, lithium. To replace over 1.4 billion cars worldwide (including over 300 million in the US) could potentially require tens of millions of tons of lithium. Proven reserves are estimated by BP to be around 19 million tons, with almost 60% in the high deserts of Chile and Argentina. BP’s figures don’t include Bolivia, which likely has another 9 million tons. Currently the largest suppliers, in order, are Australia, Chile, China and Argentina. 

Picture yourself in some of the driest places on Earth, like the Atacama Desert of Chile, where some dry river beds indicate that there’s been no rainfall in over 100,000 years. Water from elsewhere drains into the lowest-lying basins, but evaporates easily, leaving behind a salty soup that’s rich in minerals. Flamingos thrive in this unique environment, where they slurp up shrimp from the salty brine, giving them their characteristic pink color. Lithium is present in these salt flats (“salares” in Spanish) when the element has leached from nearby rock. To access the most metal, prospectors pump brine up from underground aquifers. Brine sits for months within evaporation ponds, as water evaporates into the arid air above. The remaining goop is filtered and moved to other ponds for further distillation, and after 12-18 months, useful lithium compounds can be extracted. 

Water is not easy to come by in such dry regions. But the lithium extraction process is hugely water intensive, requiring 1.5 million liters of water per ton of Li (15,000 liters per 100 kWh battery pack). 65% of water in the Salar de Atacama goes to mining, which leaves Indigenous quinoa farmers and delicate wetland ecosystems with less. 

Lithium also exists in deposits in solid rock, and when mined causes environmental damage similar to those discussed in previous chapters. Local communities are fighting back. An open pit lithium mine planned near the Nevada-Oregon border has drawn resistance from the Shoshone and Paiute peoples whose history and livelihood are on those lands. 

Painting by Virginia Wright-Frierson

Hydrochloric and sulfuric acids are used in lithium processing, and waste products can leak. In China, where much of the current extraction occurs, a leak from a lithium operation into the Liqi River in Tibet killed fish and cows, and led to large protests from Indigenous peoples.

A mining strategy that is less invasive is geothermal brine extraction, where hot water containing lithium is brought up from underground for processing. These mines can be coupled with geothermal electricity and heat to produce clean, load-following power as well as lithium. A mine and geothermal energy project of this type is now online in the Salton Sea in the south Coachella Valley in California, an ever-shrinking lake that has been home to many an environmental disaster. Previous efforts in this region have proved too difficult or too costly, and it remains to be seen whether this less invasive technology will be successful at meeting the ever-growing lithium demand.


As Prof. Thea Riofrancos, author of Resource Radicals, has stated, resource extraction locations are not purely determined by geology and the location of mineral deposits. It’s no coincidence that the most marginalized communities & Indigenous communities are where many of the most precious resources are mined; these are communities that are considered disposable. 

Local communities, though, rise up when they are being exploited, building impressive grassroots resistance to extractors. How to those outside the local area build solidarity with these environmental justice struggles? What does history tell us about the role of outside influences in resource conflicts?

Echoes of the past still resonate within current events, so we’ll work backwards from the recent past. In 2021, Cristina Dorador Ortiz, a Chilean biologist, was elected as one of 155 citizens tasked with writing a new Chilean constitution. She ran on an anti-extractivism platform, citing her own research on the delicate hotspots of microbial activity within salt flats, and her own experiences with pollution. 

“We have to establish an ecological constitution that acknowledges that human beings are part of nature. Doing so will affect how we relate to extractivism. We should encourage new types of economy, smaller scale, and think about the future.” — Cristina Dorador Ortiz, Chilean biologist and elected official.

But why does Chile’s constitution need to be reformed? The current constitution was written during the Pinochet dictatorship, installed after a U.S.-backed coup overthrew the Salvador Allende government on Sept 11, 1973. The Pinochet years were staggeringly brutal: over 3000 killed and nearly 30,000 tortured during his 17 years in power. The 2010 documentary Nostalgia for the Light tells the stories of women who search for the bones of their disappeared relatives in the same deserts where lithium mining occurs. The Pinochet-era constitution entrenched military power and oligarchs, banned left-wing political parties, and shuffled electoral districts to overrepresent his party. The constitution makes it difficult to implement progressive reforms, instead strongly protecting the interests of big business. 

Why did the US care about Chile enough to undermine their democratically elected leader in the 1970s? These actions followed in a long tradition of American governments supporting corporate interests abroad over the will and well-being of the local people. Like the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954 after conflicts with the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita), or the deposition of the Iranian prime minister in 1953 after he nationalized the oil industry, many democratically elected governments with an anti-colonial bent have been brought down with the aid of the United States. 

It happened in the DRC in 1961 as well. The U.S., along with Belgium, were behind the assassination of the first democratically elected prime minister of the DRC (then the Republic of Congo), Patrice Lumumba. The commonality between this country and Chile is that the elected leaders came from people-oriented, leftist, sovereignty movements that were generally against exploitation of their people by outside business interests.

Chile under Pinochet became the test grounds for the neoliberal market reforms of economist Milton Friedman. Neoliberalism is the policy of privatization of public services, globalization of corporations, and austerity in government spending that has characterized government policies in recent decades not just in Latin America but in many countries across the world. The neoliberal system brought huge increases in inequality in Chile during the Pinochet era.

Chile’s constitution has made reforms very difficult, even 30 years after the dictatorship ended. The December 2021 election of 35-year-old former student activist Gabriel Boric as president solidifies the likelihood of major changes in Chilean society at large, although the first attempt at rewriting the constitution failed at the ballot box in September 2022. The government and constitutional convention aim to enact many progressive reforms, like increasing investment in education and health care, decreasing dependence on central banks, and establishing more self-governance of resources, including attention to the environmental impacts of extraction of lithium and copper. 

How can Americans support climate justice and equitable mining in Chile? Certainly doing whatever is possible to assure that there is no U.S. interference in Boric’s or any other democratically elected administration, like the leftist leaders elected recently in Peru, BoliviaHonduras, Colombia and Brazil, is a necessary start. More generally, there is a need to respect the sovereignty of countries to determine their own economic destiny. Because many previous destabilization efforts by the U.S. were conducted in secret by the Central Intelligence Agency,

Militarism is often mentioned as a problem for climate change because of its huge carbon footprint. Military carbon footprints are not reported within national heat-trapping gas inventories, and are not subject to limitations in international agreements like the Paris Accord. De-militarization is also critical for climate justice because the targets of military operations are often justice-based governments.

Extraction of raw materials from the Global South, when shipped to the Global North, is an asymmetric exchange. This can be made more balanced with establishment of local industries to create higher value products with the raw materials, such as refined metals or goods. Partnerships among Global South countries can help level the playing field.

Paying climate reparations in the form of loss and damages is always discussed at international meetings, but little progress has been made recently. Eliminating the debt owed to the Global North could be a critical element of climate reparations. Interest payments, often on loans that have been paid over the principle but are still active because of very high interest rates, are a large fraction of many developing countries’ GDP: larger than health expenditures for 64 countries.

A related topic is the austerity programs imposed by the IMF and World Bank as conditions of loans. These programs require cuts in education, health care and other basic services, and can be devastating. Despite large bailouts of private banks in the 2008 financial crisis, austerity demands on poorer countries are still in action, indicating that jubilees (cancellation of debts) only occurs for the richest.

Finally, a less well-known but critical climate action is to end or weaken the investor-state dispute settlement and the related Energy Charter Treaty. These mechanisms allow multinational corporations to sue governments for large sums of money when there is opposition to extraction without going through a typical court.

Trans-Atlantic Rhythms of Change

We end our discussion of minerals for energy storage by examining some politically charged music from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chile. Cor Akim‘s “Mon Vote” is a powerful anthem that urges Congolese citizens to vote for what’s best for their country and against corruption. Soon after its release, Akim was kidnapped and beaten, but he survived and still makes music today.

There are two songs in the playlist by Victor Jara, a Chilean folk singer who was killed by the Chilean military following the Pinochet coup, in a stadium which now bears his name. His words resonate today whether in the recorded version of “Vientos del Pueblo” sung by Jara himself, or the recent reinterpretation of his legendary “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz” by Chilean artists, in solidarity with participants in the protests which swept the country in 2019.

“Independence cha cha” captures the sheer joy of the Congolese people in the short year between the final independence negotiations and Lumumba’s assassination. Socially conscious rapper Lexxus Legal‘s “Ma Part” brings a modern interpretation of issues such as AIDS, mining and transformative power of rap. Eco-Afro-futuristic music and performance art collective Fulu Miziki, whose name translates to Music from the Trash, creates their own homemade instruments and costumes from litter, to bring attention to environmental issues in their native Democratic Republic of Congo. Their song “Bivada,” a celebration of the workers of Kinshasa, is best experienced in video form, where their instrumental virtuosity and striking costumes are most clearly on display.

Che Apalache is a South American bluegrass band whose song “The Dreamer” tells the story of an undocumented immigrant in North Carolina. The playlist concludes with Inti-Illimani’s version of “¡El Pueblo Unido, Jamás Será Vencido!” (“The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”), the anthem of the resistance against Pinochet and an internationally known protest song and chant.


Yes to Life, No to Mining is “a global solidarity network of and for communities, organisations and networks who are standing up for their Right to Say No to mining and advancing life-sustaining, post-extractive alternatives.” YLNM has over 70 member organizations around the world in its coalition. 



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Climate, Justice and Energy Solutions Copyright © 2022, 2023, 2024 by Dargan M. W. Frierson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.