Biology only works with substances of types, and in quantities that can form cycles with no toxic „residue“. It does not extract large quantities of minerals from the Earth’s crust and seabed…

Biology-inspired alternatives for energy storage and portability…

Things could change, but current battery technology, and the associated electronics, require an enormous amount of material (rock containing ore) to be taken out of the Earth’s crust. This creates toxic collateral and ecological changes typical of the mining industry. It is to be hoped that this doesn’t spread to deep-sea mining. But unfortunately the chances that it will are high: we need too much material for batteries. What of the unresearched ecosystems and biodiversity in the oceans‘ depths? Could human economies mimic biology’s circular economies with carbon compounds? Here’s the principle in a nutshell:

Focusing just on global warming and CO2 neglects equally important environmental factors…

We simply must be concerned about the environment as a whole and not just the climate. Biodiversity collapse could be the most serious crisis looming: as biodiversity dwindles, so does the resilience and the ability of ecosystems to adapt. Humans rely on well-functioning ecosystems in countless ways.

Inspired by an editorial cartoon by Graeme Mackay. Biodiversity collapse is the largest crisis looming on the horizon, and the one with the most serious consequences for the natural world and humanity.

Losing biodiversity is a bit like having to win a football match without reserve players; then, into the bargain, you discover that the goalkeeper has also dropped out because of sickness.

Even the recycling of batteries (which must increase greatly in amount, and decrease greatly in price) produces toxic collateral. None of this, even the recycling, is „clean“. It’s beset by the same environmental challenges as most types of mineral mining/recycling.

Biology is based on cyclical economies using carbon compounds…

Biology instead cycles materials and energy in a thin layer at the boundary between crust and atmosphere (the biosphere). It uses mainly carbon compounds as energy carriers and the basis for materials. This produces minimal toxic collateral, and no rapid crises to which it can’t react.

Biology is very sensitive to materials with which it doesn’t routinely come into contact in appreciable amounts; that is the reason for ecosystem damage via mining. Much of this is already evident at steady state; but disasters — e.g. as the result of a tailings dam breaking — can cause sudden massive pollution. The Brumadinho tailings dam collapse in 2019 released metal compounds that, via river- and ground-water, impacted communities up to 120 km distant from the dam. The Mariana (Bento Rodrigues) tailings dam disaster in 2015 contaminated watercourses over a total length of roughly 670 km, including coastal Atlantic waters.

Water use, and water contamination by mining and metal refinement are major ecological burdens. Lithium is sourced ever more from rock ore (largely spodumene), which is at low concentration compared with lithium in brines. Extracting lithium from ores requires around 2.5 times as much energy, and several times as much fresh water as extracting it from brines.

Further reading:

> Challenges of economically recycling „black mass“ from end-of-life batteries
> Identification of challenges, prospects and opportunities in lithium ion battery recycling
> The Decarbonization Delusion – What 3.5 Billion Years of Biological Sustainability Can Teach Us
> Brumadinho tailings dam disaster 2019
> Mariana tailings dam disaster 2015
> Considerations for lithium mining from an environmental and industrial perspective from the German Federal Institute for Raw Materials and Geoscience
> Energy, water and environmental balance of lithium production (including figures allowing comparison between rock-ore extraction and brine extraction)

Copyright Andrew Moore 2024