Graphite is one of the main components in lithium-ion battery technology, which is found in everything from smartphones to electric vehicles. Unfortunately, shoddy graphite mining practices are exacerbating a big pollution problem.
Think graphite, and what may come to mind is the graphite pencil (lead hasn’t been used in writing instruments for a few thousand years), but a much larger quantity of graphite is to be found in the lithium-ion battery. Of course, we’re used to seeing lithium-ion batteries in smartphones, laptops, tablets, and electric vehicles. The Nissan Leaf’s battery, for example, contains about 110 lbs of graphite, while a laptop battery might contain about 0.2 lb of the stuff.
Lithium-ion battery technology is the most energy-dense and reliable rechargeable battery that we have today, which is why demand for it has grown. Considering that graphite is a major component of lithium-ion battery technology, demand for the substance as also grown. There are few places in the world that produce graphite in sufficient quantities to satisfy the demand, the biggest of which are in Eastern China, which produced some 1.8 million tons in 2005.
Ramping up the extraction of graphite to satisfy the demand for lithium-ion batteries has led to some serious problems in China, which already suffers from pollution problems. Whereas China, like most developing lands, has very weak, or at least poorly enforced, pollution and emissions regulations, it should come as no surprise that Chinese graphite mines are such a problem. The result has been graphite rain, rain laden with graphite dust, and untreated hydrochloric acid and graphite being washed into streams and rivers. China has since shut down more than fifty graphite mines in the region, which raises the question: “Will lithium-ion battery prices increase?”