China Dialogue website has published the first account of a new, hi-tech industry in Tibet -lithium mining- and its consequences for the environment. China Dialogue published an edited version, in Chinese and English, on 20 December 2011. Below is the full version.


By Gabriel Lafitte

Chinese geologists exploring Tibet in the 1960s criss-crossed the plateau, searching for the mineral wealth China assumed must be abundant, but had never had access to. In remote alpine deserts, the geological expeditions came upon lakes that had no rivers to drain them, which were very slowly drying due to long term climate shifts. High on the empty plain of the stony Chang Tang, they found lakes already dry, the lake bed a shimmering salt pan.

Testing the various salts, they discovered a scientific curiosity. One lake in particular, Drangyer Tsaka (Zabuye or Zhabuye in Chinese) held an extraordinary concentration of lithium salts. Measurements of 660 parts per million of lithium were recorded, and logged as a scientific oddity. Only in the Atacama Desert of the Andes had such levels of lithium been discovered.

For decades, these numbers were known only to a handful of geologists. Lithium was a metal in moderate demand, for unglamorous uses in the manufacture of ceramics and industrial greases, and, in tiny amounts, as a psychiatric anti-depressant. China had other ways of obtaining its modest need for lithium, from mining a lithium-rich mineral ore at Yichun, in Jiangxi province. Should that prove insufficient, there were other salt lakes on the Tibetan Plateau, far from lonely Drangyer Tsaka. In the Tsaidam Basin of northern Tibet, geologists found not only salt lakes but also oil, asbestos, lead, zinc and, at Tso Ngonpo (Qinghai Hu) a lake that could be used as the frontline in China’s drive for military superpower status, as the laboratory for developing submarine-based nuclear missiles.

So valuable were the lake and the Tsaidam Basin that a railway was built over three decades ago, with tanker wagons trundling millions of tons of Tibetan oil to Lanzhou annually ever since. The availability, in one basin, of so many minerals, including gas fields discovered and exploited later, provided the raw feedstocks for a major industrial complex. Gormo, (Golmud in Chinese) formerly a camel train stop on the long haul between Lanzhou and Lhasa, became an industrial city, its petrochemical plants making plastics, fuel, fertilizers and explosives. The salts of the many salt lakes were essential inputs.

Of the many salt lakes of the arid Tsaidam Basin, one stood out for its high level of lithium salts, mixed in, as usual with common sodium salt, potassium and magnesium salts. Da Qaidam or Charhan, as China called it, had concentrations of lithium recorded at 330 ppm, half the level of Drangyer Tsaka, but extraordinary by any other standard of comparison. This too remained a scientific curiosity, punctuated occasionally by official media stories announcing these fabulous finds, in the hope of attracting finance from Beijing to exploit them. Gradually, the salts of Tibet started appearing in Five-Year Plans, in the 1980s, but actual use was limited to scooping huge quantities of salt from briny lake beds for manufacture of polyvinyl chloride and urea fertiliser, processes which ignored not only the lithium salts but also the potentially valuable potassium and magnesium salts too.

By the 1990s, as Chinese farm soils depleted, attention shifted to the potassium salts, which could be made into potash, essential to a mix of chemical fertilisers that might restore balance and fertility to overworked farmland soils that no longer were enriched the old way, by spreading human wastes onto the fields. Potash was much needed, and China had to import it from Canada, yet the salt lakes of Tsaidam Basin, rich in potash, were industrially undeveloped. A joint venture with Israel, experienced in industrial salt extraction from the Dead Sea, fizzled out. Finally, China invested in potash production, which is now one of the major industries of Qinghai province, along with petrochemicals.

Around the turn of this century, China fully entered the era of separating the mixed salts of Tsaidam Basin lake beds. Separating sodium, potassium, magnesium and lithium salts, which had naturally crystallized in a mix, requires heavy duty solvents that are toxic to all life, and often cancer-causing. Since Qinghai authorities were keen to industrialise a province that had been known only for its labour camps, poverty, remoteness and cold climate, land use controls and environmental regulations were not a priority. In and around the provincial capital, Xining, spreading out to and surrounding the famous Kumbum monastery (Ta’er Si in Chinese), industrial plants took up land, pouring effluents into nearby streams.

In Gormo, Xining and along the rail line connecting them, potash and magnesium plants were built, and grew. In mid 2011, Kumbum people protested, saying in a petition: “High-polluting and wanton extractive business practices have brought bitterness and disaster for the local people. Local villagers have obstructed the mining on many occasions, demanding that the sacred mountain [known as Lhamo mountain] not be mined and requesting Kumbum Monastery to act as an official protector. The monastery management committee submitted a report on the situation to the higher authorities, but there was no response. As of this year, the situation has become more serious, especially during the months of May to July, when eight villages had serious contamination in their water pipes with the water becoming muddy and foul smelling. Monks and local people became nauseous, their bodies became listless and they felt dazed and some even had to be hospitalised from drinking the water.”

Kumbum, once far from urban noise and dirt is now engulfed by polluting factories that have spread from nearby Xining city. It is far from the only area in western China where mining, including lithium extraction, is causing protests. Even though extracting lithium from mining silicate rock spodumene is worldwide becoming obsolete, in favour of lithium from salt lakes, China’s hunger for lithium has resulted in spodumene lithium ore mining in mountainous western Sichuan, in the Tibetan prefecture of Kandze (Garze in Chinese). Many of the protests in recent years by Tibetan villagers have been at the impacts of uncontrolled mining.

Lithium enters rivers and drinking water from many industrial sources. Its’ toxicity has been scientifically studied in fish, other aquatic creatures, and mammals. In rainbow trout a team of Canadian and Finnish scientists report that: “Our results show that lithium is potentially detrimental to the juvenile rainbow trout at concentrations of 0.528 mg Li/L, with sublethal effects on the physiology because gill sodium pump activities of gills were dramatically decreased, even when mortalities were low.” (Victoria Tkatcheva, Physiological and Biochemical Effects of Lithium in Rainbow Trout, Archives of Environmental Contamination & Toxicology, 53, 632-638, 2007)

Lithium fed experimentally to rats, according to a 2004 scientific report caused: “Reductions in number and weight of the litter, an increase in the number of resorptions, wavy ribs, and short and deformed bones of the limbs, or an increased incidence of incomplete ossification of sternebrae, thoracic vertebrae, phalanges, and metatarsal and metacarpal bones were the most remarkable effects caused by lithium when given orally to rats.” (J. L. Domingo, Metal-Induced Developmental Toxicity In Mammals: A Review, Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, 42:2, 123-141)

Until very recently lithium remained an industrial byproduct, a waste in the liquor remaining after everything valuable had been extracted. So it remained, until China emerged as the world’s factory, just at the time mobile phones and laptop computers, all powered by lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries swept the world. Suddenly, lithium was fashionable, essential to the promise of an electric future of ever-present mobile access online to the switched on cloud.

The game changer that has made yesterday’s industrial waste liquor tomorrow’s hot investment stock, is the electric car. The amount of lithium in the Li-ion batteries driving tomorrow’s cars is measured in kilos, not grams. The fate of not only accessible Tsaidam Basin lithium but inaccessible Drangyer Tsaka was sealed.

China’s battery manufacturers saw the possibility of making the leap, from makers of no-name brands hidden inside your iPad or smartphone, to big brand car manufacturer. The quickest to capitalize and upscale was a Shenzhen battery maker called BYD, which overnight transformed itself into a car manufacturer, beginning with a small, conventional petrol powered car that for a while sold well. But BYD’s big promise was that it would soon produce a revolutionary electric car, at the forefront of China’s push, aided by substantial central subsidies, to create new industries which China could dominate.

With little more than sketches and mockups, BYD ambitiously seized the lead in the race to capture the forecast electric car boom, by announcing a new model, the C6, due to hit the roads in 2011, which would revolutionise motoring, reduce pollution, establish China as brand leader in green technologies, along with China’s heavily subsidized push into wind and solar power manufacture.

Undeterred by global financial crises and wildly fluctuating commodity prices for raw materials, BYD pressed ahead, with one bold announcement after another. One coup was its announcement in 2010 that it had not only taken an equity stake in the Drangyer Tsaka lithium salt deposit, but had exclusive contractual rights to its lithium salts for the coming 20 years.

That drew in two of the world’s richest men, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who flew to Shenzhen, to be draped with golden Tibetan silk scarves at the launch of BYD’s M6 electric car prototype, signaling to the global market Buffett’s 10 per cent equity stake in BYD as the next big thing.

The glam of the launch, available forever on YouTube, conceals different ground truths. Obtaining lithium, magnesium and potassium from salt lakes remains a dirty business, as the monks of Kumbum, choking for breath, well know. Environmental regulations are ignored; air, earth and water are polluted. BYD has missed its own promise deadlines for putting an actual electric car on the market, and Beijing shows signs of scaling back its hopes and subsidies. BYD seems increasingly to have sold its sizzle far in advance of any capacity to produce the steak customers await. BYD’s share price plummeted in 2011. Investigative reporters from Caixin Weekly explain why: “Net profits fell 88 percent to 275 million yuan, maintaining a skid that started with a 33 percent year-on-year profit decline to 2.5 billion yuan in 2010. January-June auto sales fell 25 percent from the first half 2010 to 10.2 billion yuan. Sources close to BYD told Caixin the company is running low on cash, and has resorted to paying off mature loans with borrowed money. A financial analyst said the company “invested too much in its expansion” and cannot earn enough “to sustain the investment” projects. An apparent cash crunch fanned an undercurrent of doubt about the company and its premise that new energy is the wave of the future. Some say the wave BYD wants to ride is now curling toward a crash.” (A New Energy Carmaker Starts to Nosedive, Caixin Weekly: November 02, 2011)

The sexy, new, utterly green all-electric car of the future may not be as green as people hope. Not only does li-ion battery manufacture consume a lot of energy –in China from coal fired power stations- but the solvent extraction methods and leakage of lithium to water supplies are also dangers. Worse, electric vehicles are of great interest to militaries operating in remote areas where it is difficult to transport liquid gasoline to the battlefront. Ford is working with the US military on electric vehicles for use in places such as Afghanistan.

But China is powering ahead with its lithium extraction plans. The first large scale lithium extraction factory in the Tsaidam basin is due to begin operation soon, and even Drangyer Tsaka is now scheduled to produce thousands of tons of lithium annually. It may not be long before your latest handheld passport to mobile connectivity is powered by Tibetan lithium.

Lithium demand is set to soar, if the advocates of electric vehicles are right in their forward projections. The amount of lithium required to power a car could be as much as 12.7 kgs, according to the respected Argonne Laboratory. That’s far more than the battery in your tablet or smart phone. That would mean, unless a lot of lithium is recycled, oncsuming over 50,000 tons of lithium a year just in the US, 40 years from now.

The environmental costs of using lithium batteries as the best available technology for powering electric cars are considerable. A 2008 scientific report estimated that “greenhouse gasses associated with lithium-ion battery materials and production account for 2–5% of life cycle emissions from hybrid electric vehicles.”

China’s State Council 2010 Decision on Speeding up the Cultivation and Development of Strategic Emerging Industries gives high priority to lithium ion batteries as a key industry on which China’s future depends. China, the world’s factory, is the lithium ion battery factory of the world, an industry growing at 33% a year. China’s state-sponsored push to turn BYD into a national champion of electric car manufacturing may be faltering, yet the environmental impacts continue to intensify. Those impacts are now concentrated in the Tibetan Plateau, in arid areas where pollutants accumulate in basins with no external drainage. Both the Tsaidam Basin and Drangyer Tsaka lithium salt lakes cannot dispose of toxins generated by solvent extraction, to land or water, without the wastes staying where they are dumped, or evaporate into the thin air and intense heat of a Tibetan summer. No longer will lithium extraction be confined to Gansu, as in the past.

China’s plan is to rapidly increase lithium extraction, first from the Qinghai Tsaidam Basin lakes, then from Drangyer Tsaka in the far west of Tibet Autonomous Region. In order to speed up industrialisation, Beijing has ordered companies to merge. Qinghai’s Qarhan Lake in Tsaidam basin is already a major source of potash, where lithium salts occur as a by-product of potash extraction, as an end-liquor containing 120 parts of lithium per million parts of post-potash extraction waste. China has merged its state-owned enterprises, creating a potash-lithium conglomerate better capitalised and diversified to spread price risks. Lithium production has become a by-product of potash extraction for fertiliser use. According to the new master plan, “Salt Lake Potash Co. will upgrade from a potash bellwether into a complex in potassium, magnesium, chlorine and lithium resources, improving its competitiveness and risk resistance capacity.” (SinoCast 23 December 2010)

The new target is to increase Qinghai salt lake production to 30,000 tons of lithium a year, sufficient for hundreds of millions of smartphone batteries. But that is actually a scaling back of a more ambitious plan to quickly extract 60,000 tons of lithium a year in Qinghai. The technology and expertise to ensure the high levels of lithium purity required have forced the scaling back. This suggests environmental problems also have not been conquered.

“China is the world’s No.3 miner of lithium, used in the production of batteries, after Chile and Australia, and nearly 90 percent of its output comes from salt lakes in Qinghai province. Qinghai produced 6,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate last year and planned to raise that to 30,000 tonnes over the next five years, China Daily quoted Liu Shanqing, director of Qinghai’s Land and Resources Department, as saying. ‘The original plan was to have a capacity of 60,000 tonnes by 2015, but since extraction technologies are not that mature we have scaled it down to 30,000 tonnes,’ he said.” (Reuters, 23 July 2010) That’s a fivefold increase, delaying the tenfold increase, all from Tibet. Qinghai Salt Lake Industry Group’s 10,000 tons per year brine-based lithium carbonate and chloride project in Qinghai is scheduled be in full production in 2012, due to triple by 2015.

If the pace of growth is not as fast as central planners hoped for, it is because of technical problems with the use of volatile toxic solvents including isobutanol, pentanol, tetrahydrofuran, cresol and chloroform. Unless the solvents work perfectly, the purity of the lithium is contaminated, and fails to reach battery-grade suited for use in computers and electric cars. These solvents, which give off fumes even at ordinary temperatures, require careful containment, and investment in stainless steel pressure vessels, operated by a trained and alert workforce.

How will such industrialisation work in the alpine desert of upper Tibet, at Drangyer Tsaka, where state owned miners have pledged to spend over $15 million? In April 2011, Tibet Mineral Development Co. Ltd. raised RMB 1.21 billion ($187.22 million) through a non-public offering of shares to eight investors to recapitalise its subsidiaries. One of those subsidiaries is the Zabuye lithium salt lake, which is to receive $15.5 million to intensify lithium extraction, according to Interfax China Mining & Metals Weekly, 2 July 2011. Drangyer Tsaka is close to 2000 kms from the nearest Chinese industrial city, lacking almost entirely in roads, towns, power supply or communications. If the world is to watch for environmental impacts, it will have to be from afar.

So great is China’s plan to be the global powerhouse of lithium battery manufacture, the next frontier is the unhappy Ngawa (Aba in Chinese) mountain prefecture of Sichuan, up in the rugged ranges of the Tibetan Plateau. The lithium rich mineral ores of Ngawa were named in an October 2011 report by Beijing-based consultancy CCID: “Taking advantage of the local lithium ore, the central and western regions represented by Yichun Jiangxi, Ngawa Sichuan, Qinghai and Tibet vigorously develop the lithium ion battery industry. The lithium ore of Ngawa Sichuan accounts for one fourth of the total reserves of the nation, with lithium mainly distributed in the counties of Barkam (Ma’erkang) and Quqen. The rare lithium ores within the territory have laid a solid foundation for Ngawa to build into China’s Lithium Valley. The brine in salt lakes of Qinghai and Tibet has also provided a basis for the lithium ion battery industry in the two provinces.”

The far north, far west and now far east of the Tibetan Plateau are all designated lithium extraction zones, far from the gaze of regulatory authorities. Lives have been lost in protests against mining. Can we assume your next killer app is powered by ethically obtained lithium?

When the great philanthropist Bill Gates launched the yet-to-be-launched BYD electric car it was under a BYD banner proclaiming: “Let innovative New Energy technology power the philanthropic light in Tibet and the World.” China’s Communist Party routinely says it has brought light to the darkness of Tibet, and is acting philanthropically. Maybe Tibetans have had enough of philanthropic utopias thrust on them. Maybe Bill Gates should be ashamed.

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