Lithium in Chiapas: Is it Worth the Environmental Risk?

The world’s new petrol is lithium. It is a valuable mineral that we are using in practically everything: batteries for electronic equipment, ceramics, glass, lubricants, batteries for electric vehicles, countless batteries, and even in some medicines used for bipolar treatment.

Being a ductile and light alkaline metal, with high functionality, such as energy storage and its subsequent recharging, it is the great promise of the future of non-polluting mobility.

Today it is known that in Mexico the largest usable reserves are in Sonora, Chihuahua, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí, according to studies by the Mexican Geological Service, although research carried out more than 30 years ago also found the presence of this mineral in Chiapas.

According to the US Geological Survey, Mexico ranks number ten out of 34 nations with lithium resources worldwide, however, there is neither the industry nor the infrastructure to extract and exploit this resource. Is lithium really a clean energy option?

Marcelino García Benítez is a Researcher for Mexico, and is also attached to the Institute for Research in Risk Management and Climate Change of the University of Sciences and Arts of Chiapas (UNICACH). In his opinion the presence of lithium in Chiapas can represent a development opportunity as well as a potential risk of contaminating the water reserves that we will need in the future.

“In the case of Chiapas, the presence of lithium was identified in the Sierra Norte and Sur, where there are strips with this material. However, this forces us to assess the environmental impact of its extraction, because huge volumes of water are required. Although Chiapas has these reserves, there is no guarantee that we will have them in the next ten years and that they are not contaminated.”

For industrial use, concentrated lithium is required, free of impurities, while the mineral found in Chiapas is associated with clay, that is, it would be necessary to use a lot of water to clean it.

“It causes environmental deterioration that we must be aware of, and whose consequences could add to the social conflicts that the state is facing today,” he stressed.

The exploitation of lithium requires a lot of water, it is a complex process of extraction, storage and drying. Although its commercialization is announced as an economic opportunity, little is said about the social impact that the deterioration of environmental spaces can cause in regions such as Chiapas.

In addition, lithium batteries have a long life, and if they are thrown away or not disposed of properly, they can add to the long list of pollutants that affect the world today.

“What will we do when their useful life is over? The biggest concern is knowing what we are going to do with those batteries, having adequate logistics.”

Today the large lithium production centers are located in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Australia and the United States. Mexico wants to be part of this group. However, in South American countries lithium extraction is beginning to create social problems due to lack of water, but also health problems, due to the contamination of aquifers. And that is where the dilemma arises for regions like Chiapas, whose natural wealth is fragile.

Marcelino García Benítez points out that for Chiapas the case is to assess whether its exploitation in open pit mines is worth it, which is the most viable option due to the conditions in which lithium is found, however, it is a form of mining that is being prohibited because it is highly degrading of ecosystems.

“It is necessary to assess what is more important, conserve or extract; The second option also requires technology and investments that the state does not have, however, once again a question arises: Will extracting lithium be profitable for the environmental future of Chiapas?

The Mexican reserves, even though they are important, do not reach the magnitude of those of Bolivia or Argentina. But its production would have to increase by 500 percent by 2050 if demand for electric cars is to be adequately met, according to World Bank data. In Mexico, the amount of “white gold” is estimated at 1.7 million tons, compared to 21 million in Bolivia. Despite this, it is the tenth country in the world in reserves.

Is lithium the new energy promise for Mexico as petrol was in its the time? Is Chiapas prepared for the extraction of this mineral and the environmental risk that this implies?

Original article by Marco Alvarado at
Translated by Schools for Chiapas.

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