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The Problem

The initial uses of lithium were as a hardener in lead alloy-bearing material, as an additive in frits and glass formulations, and as an industrial catalyst [1]. However, in recent times, in the realm of energy, lithium has emerged as a champion, driving the wheels of progress toward a cleaner and more sustainable future. It is the life force powering the heartbeats of electric vehicles, liberating us from the chains of fossil fuels that once bound us. With its extraordinary electrochemical properties, lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized the way we store and utilize energy, paving the way for greener transportation and a significant reduction in carbon emissions. Its application is not just limited to electric vehicles but also in the production of batteries for portable information technologies devices such as laptop computers and mobile phones. According to Statista[2], “In 2030, the global demand for lithium is expected to surpass two million metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent, more than doubling the demand forecast for 2025.” (n.d). This demand is expected to outpace the production of lithium. By tapping into the global market for lithium-ion batteries, Ghana can generate revenue and promote sustainable development.


Traditional lithium mining has several environmental and social impacts, such as ecological destruction, e-waste generation, water scarcity, and water pollution. These impacts can have serious consequences for both natural and human systems.

Ecological destruction:

Traditional Lithium mining activities can damage natural habitats and reduce biodiversity. This can affect the functioning and resilience of ecosystems, as well as the services they provide, such as food, medicine, and climate regulation. For example, lithium mining in the Atacama Desert of Chile has caused the loss of native flora and fauna and altered the hydrological cycle [3]

E-waste generation:

Lithium batteries are widely used in electronic devices, but they have a limited lifespan and are often discarded improperly. This creates a large amount of e-waste that contains hazardous substances, such as heavy metals and flame retardants. These substances can leach into the environment and pose risks to human health and wildlife. According to a report by the United Nations, e-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world, reaching 53.6 million metric tons in 2019 [4].

Water scarcity:

Lithium mining requires a lot of water processing (about 500,000 litres) for extraction and. This can deplete local water resources and exacerbate water stress in arid regions. Water scarcity can have negative impacts on ecosystems, agriculture, and human well-being. For instance, lithium mining in Argentina has been linked to water conflicts between mining companies and indigenous communities [5].

Water pollution:

Lithium mining can also contaminate water sources with chemicals and pollutants. These can affect the quality and availability of water for human consumption and irrigation. Water pollution can also harm aquatic life and ecosystems. A study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that lithium mining in China has caused serious groundwater pollution and soil salinization [6].

Why unsustainable lithium mining is prevalent despite its consequences

The problem of unsustainable lithium mining and the associated environmental and social consequences is prevalent despite its consequences due to several factors:

High demand

The global shift towards renewable energy and the rapid growth of the electric vehicle market have significantly increased the demand for lithium. This creates a economic incentives for mining companies and countries to extract lithium quickly, often disregarding sustainable practices.

Limited alternatives

Currently, lithium-ion batteries are the dominant technology for energy storage and portable electronics due to their high energy density and long lifespan. Until alternative technologies become more viable and scalable, the demand for lithium will continue to rise.

Economic benefits

Mining lithium can provide significant economic benefits to countries, such as job creation and revenue generation. These economic incentives can overshadow the negative consequences of unsustainable mining practices, leading to the continued prevalence of the problem.

Technological limitations

Traditional mining methods have been the primary means of lithium extraction, and transitioning to more sustainable alternatives requires technological advancements and investments. Developing and implementing new technologies and approaches takes time and resources, which can delay the adoption of sustainable practices.



Brine extraction involves pumping saltwater from underground reservoirs known as salars. The water is then evaporated, leaving behind lithium and other minerals. While this method can be cost-effective and environmentally friendly, it has some shortcomings. For one, the process can be affected by weather conditions, leading to fluctuations in output.The high salt content and chemical additives in brine can affect water quality and endanger plant and animal life. The significant amounts of water used during the process may strain local water resources, and its reliance on natural evaporation makes it relatively long as well. Due to the impurities in brine deposits, the processing stages are more complex and costly during production.


This method involves extracting lithium from lithium-bearing minerals such as spodumene and pegmatite. The process typically includes drilling, blasting, and crushing the ore to obtain lithium-bearing concentrates. The concentrates are then processed further to extract lithium compounds. While this method can be faster than brine extraction, it has its own drawbacks for example, it can be more expensive due to the need for specialized equipment and safety measures.

Inspiration for project selection

Mining in Ghana is clearly inevitable as it forms such an integral part of the nation’s economy and national identity. Unfortunately, the negative impacts it presents on the people, communities and the environment are much too overpowering. Furthermore, Artisanal mining is also known to pose a threat to cocoa production as it has wiped away several cocoa farms and the use of mercury has also stunted the crop growth of cocoa [7]. This is quite a pressing concern, considering the fact that Ghana is the second largest cocoa producing country in the world. With the recent undertaking of the lithium mining project, these problems are expected to continue to escalate and result in environmental damages beyond repair. Our proposed solution is therefore geared towards making the lithium mining process more sustainable so as to substantially minimize its impacts on the environment by possessing the ability to detect, extract and recycle lithium.

  • Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG 6)•

    Traditional mining methods, such as the illegal mining practice known as "Galamsey," often lead to water pollution and the degradation of water bodies. By utilizing synthetic biology and responsible mining techniques, we can prevent the destruction of water bodies, promoting clean water access and preserving aquatic ecosystems.

    Affordable and Clean Energy (SDG 7)•

    As the demand for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage increases, a sustainable and efficient lithium supply is essential. By harnessing bacteria-based detection and mining methods, we expedite the extraction process and support the development of affordable and clean energy technologies, enabling more complete access to clean energy sources.

    Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12)•

    By developing efficient methods to recycle lithium ions, we tackle the challenge of e-waste accumulation resulting from lithium batteries. This reduces the environmental impact of e-waste and promotes responsible consumption patterns, setting an example for other regions facing similar challenges.

Our Contribution (solution)

Lithium's economic advantages make it highly sought after, but conventional geophysical mining methods present significant risks to the environment and nearby communities. The use of harsh chemicals like sulfuric and hydrochloric acid in mining activities causes delays in land reclamation. We propose a more environmentally friendly approach to detecting and extracting lithium to address these issues.

Our method involves genetically engineered fluorescent E. coli bacteria with an affinity for lithium ions. By creating a multi-colored lithium biosensor using these bacteria, we can detect and indicate the different intensities of lithium ions in the soil. Additionally, we will culture bacteria capable of extracting lithium from the regolith. This biological technique aims to mitigate the negative impacts associated with conventional mining practices and reduce the duration of land reclamation.

Furthermore, e-waste, particularly battery waste, poses a significant problem, especially in Ghana. To tackle this issue, we plan to culture E. coli bacteria to extract and separate lithium from the ton of materials found in batteries. The recovered lithium will then be reused in various lithium-dependent applications. This approach aligns with the principles of a circular economy and promotes responsible consumption of lithium ore. Such practices are crucial as the electrification of devices becomes more prevalent in the future.


[1]“Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology || Lithium and Lithium Compounds,” dokumen.tips. https://dokumen.tips/documents/lithium-and-lithium-compounds.html (accessed Jun. 9, 2023).

[2]“Projection total lithium demand globally 2030,” Statista. https://www.statista.com/projected-total-demand-for-lithium-globally/ (accessed Jun. 19, 2023).

[3] J. Qiu, "The salt miners of Tibet," Nature, vol. 569, no. 7756, pp. 306-308, May 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01502-7

[4] United Nations et al., "The Global E-waste Monitor 2020," 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Environment/Documents/GEM%202020/Global-E-waste%20Monitor%202020%20(E).pdf

[5] M. Aparicio et al., "Lithium mining versus water: An overview of challenges for sustainable development in arid northern Chile," Resources Policy, vol. 68, article 101835, Dec. 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301420720302838

[6] Y. Wang et al., "Environmental impact assessment of lithium extraction from brine based on life cycle assessment," Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 278, article 123911, Jan. 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652620337267

[7] Taylor, M.S. and Taylor, K. (2021) Ghana’s illegal galamsey gold mining affecting cocoa farmers, Chocolate Supply, Science. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/ghana-gold-mining-cocoa-environment (Accessed: 18 June 2023).