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POWERING THE JUST GLOBAL TRANSITION: A LITHIUM TRILOGY

EXTRACTION+PROCESSING // PRODUCTION+DISTRIBUTION // CONSUMPTION+RECYCLING
Fall Symposium 2023 // September11th (4 pm EST), 14th (4 pm EST), and 20th (6 pm EST)

The mandate to stop burning fossil fuels and find alternative energy sources to act on climate change drives technological innovation worldwide. However, finding sustainable solutions that work at scale will take time. Meanwhile, keeping up with ever-increasing consumption demands threatens to perpetuate a business-as-usual approach to resource extraction, accumulation, and production. In recent years, Lithium has emerged as a key metal driving the energy transition through its many technological applications. With Lithium reserves, production capacities, and consumer markets extending across planetary geographies, countries worldwide are seeking new alliances to secure access to the supply chain. The global race to expand access and modernize production toward the green transition is served.

What is Lithium, and why does it matter?
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Renewable energies and access to all forms of Lithium-powered technology are enhancing our everyday lives, decreasing the environmental footprint of human activities, from industrial production to access to information and urban mobility. As global consumers, we feel part of the growing call for sustainability: driving electric vehicles, installing solar energy to power our homes and heat water, coexisting with wind farms that replace coal-powered generation plants, and much more. But what is behind the generation and distribution of green energy? Can we trace the global flows of Lithium and other rare metals necessary for EV batteries that power so many gadgets around us? Where are the batteries going once exhausted, and how do recycling and reuse occur? How is labor compensated and spatial transformations regulated every step of the way? What are the landscape and urban typologies emerging hand in hand with technological innovation? In the remote territories that have historically provided the resources our cities consume, extraction continues disrupting ecosystems and livelihoods, urging us to consider more just and equitable means to urban sustainability. Calls for a just transition should address the processes, labor, and spatial transformations involved in every step, from material extraction to technology fabrication, energy generation, transmission, distribution, consumption, recycling, and waste management. The challenge is to scale up sustainability to promote a just urban transition through innovative public policies and design.

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This symposium aims to discuss the Lithium lifecycle's operative geographies and the design agency in the related socio-spatial transformations. The event is organized in three sessions, pairing processes to deepen our understanding of the design challenges and opportunities ahead: Mining-Processing // Production-Distribution // Consumption-Recycling. By interrogating the sociospatial transformations and the actors involved in each process, we aim to scrutinize Lithium's instrumentality powering the green energy transition and propose more just and equitable ways forward. How can design enhance the landscape values and diminish the negative impacts of extractive economies? How can we mobilize technological innovations to positively change the host communities of mines and manufacturing plants? What new urbanisms may emerge from the massive investments underway? Can we even imagine ways for a world less reliant on mineral extraction and consumption?

LITHIUM MINING + PROCESSING

Moderator: Ximena Arizaga Soto, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
Abstract

Renewable energies are no doubt enhancing all human activities, from industrial production to urban life; feeling more sustainable is now available for every consumer in the world; you can buy and utilize an electric vehicle, install solar energy to provide your house electricity and hot water consumption, observe wind farms while traveling in the highways, and many other examples. However, as a general characteristic of our modern urban lifestyle, most consumers must pay attention to where and how this new green energy is provided. In far territories, the materials that make this possible are extracted from different geographies and ecosystems, pointing out the importance of ensuring sustainability in the complete chain of transformation from raw materials to technology fabrication, energy conversion and generation, transmission, distribution, consumption, and finally recycling or disposing of waste materials and systems. In that sense, the challenge is to pass from being sustainable in the cities and countryside to a real chain of sustainable processes, considering a growing worldwide tendency for governments to promote green/renewable energy mixes through public policy actions.


At the beginning of the productive cycle is the extraction project. As an example, the design of a mining project comprises many disciplines, starting with civil, chemical, and electric engineers, constructors, architects, and designers, not forgetting financial studies and legal considerations. This project, before its materialization, implies environmental assessment, stages during which several possible difficulties might arise, spanning from technical to large-scale conflicts with the communities and public opinion. As long as the projects are not in the final engineering stage, flexibility in site insertion could be one of the most important opportunities for a sustainable project (Moreno & Arizaga, 2019). The evaluation itself involves biologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, and social disciplines that procures minimizing project impacts. Nevertheless, most of the projects, at this stage, are confronted with community rejection, evidencing the relevance of ensuring the sustainability of green energies in the territory where it is extracted. At this point, significant topics are revealed and claimed, considering, for example, lithium extraction from brine in salt flats: the landscape, as a representation of identity and as an object of value for other potential uses; the intersection with traditional or potential other economies, conservation considering the essence of the inhabited territories where mining takes place and the existence of undisturbed communities of flora and fauna species; the above without forgetting, the existence of unstudied microorganisms from whom science has still an expanded field of research for understanding our life in the earth  (Valdés, Marambio, Castillo, et al. 2022) and also the existence of life in Mars (Azua-Bustos et al. 2023).
Considering these challenging perspectives, we invite you to reflect on the challenges posed by the decision chain associated with the extraction, production, consumption, and recycling of the resources associated with renewable energies for territorial and landscape planning.

References

Azua-Bustos, A., Fairén, A.G., González-Silva, C. et al. Dark microbiome and extremely low organics in Atacama fossil delta unveil Mars life detection limits. Nat Commun 14, 808 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-36172-1
Moreno, O.; Arizaga, X., (2019) “Prototipo de Evaluación Complementaria para la Inserción de Proyectos Mineros en el Territorio”. FONDEF ID19I10368
Valdés, J., Marambio-Alfaro, Y., Castillo, A. et al. Metal(oid)s content in High-Andean aquatic systems of the Atacama Desert, Chile: environmental assessment of extreme ecosystems. Environ Sci Pollut Res (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-022-24294-w

LITHIUM EXTRACTION+PROCESSING

Moderator: Ximena Arizaga Soto, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
Abstract

The beginning of the lithium lifecycle is the extraction stage. The design of a mining project is a most complex endeavor that integrates the disparate disciplinary expertise of engineers, biologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers, architects and constructors, and designers, all grounded by financial and feasibility studies and legal considerations. Before its materialization, national legislations require the mining project to undergo a thorough environmental impact assessment to address potential concerns and minimize risks. This process addresses technical considerations and conflicts with the surrounding communities and public opinion. At this stage, most projects confront community rejection, evidencing the relevance of more critical approaches to the just urban transition to consider the territories of extraction in their claims. As a response to these concerns, a sustainable mining project requires flexibility in the siting strategy (Moreno & Arizaga, 2019).


This panel invites topics considering more sustainable lithium extraction techniques from brine in salt flats; the landscape as a representation of identity and other landscape values; the intersection of mining with traditional and alternative economies; conservation strategies for the inhabited mining territories and the undisturbed communities of flora and fauna species; the research on understudied microorganisms to better understand our life in the earth  (Valdés, Marambio, Castillo, et al. 2022) and other planets (Azua-Bustos et al. 2023).
 

Suggested Speakers:
Potential Additional Resources for this session:
  • Inside the Race to remake Lithium Extraction, Link

  • Lithium Valley Commision, Link

LITHIUM PRODUCTION+DISTRIBUTION

Moderator: Maria Arquero de Alarcon, University of Michigan
Abstract

In the National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries 2021-2030, the US government set the goal to "secure battery materials and the technology supply chain in support of long-term U.S. economic competitiveness and equitable job creation, decarbonization, social justice, and national security." The report recognizes the ubiquitousness of Lithium-based batteries: from consumer electronics to national defense, the electrification of the transportation sector, stationary grid storage, new manufacturing, and more. By turning Lithium into a matter of national security, the Biden–Harris Administration has stewarded a multi-billion-dollar effort through the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. In 2022 alone, 21 projects received $2.8 billion to support the national manufacturing of batteries for electric vehicles and the electric grid. Recipients commit to matching the funding to more than $9 billion to boost clean energy technology production, create good-paying jobs, make electric vehicles half of all new vehicle sales by 2030, and drive the transition to a net-zero emissions economy by 2050. An additional $5 billion will go to national electric vehicle infrastructure funding to help states install EV chargers along interstate highways.
These investment priorities signal major opportunities for economic development and are already driving massive socio-spatial transformations from the cities’ core to their distant hinterlands. A new geopolitical order is taking shape: new extractive technologies enable more distributed mining prospections, is driving the emergence of the Battery Belt displacing traditional manufacturing employment south, multi-billion industrial projects in remote regions, and more and more infrastructure connecting it all. While this massive mobilization of public funding is animating the economy to serve national priorities, the framework carry deep contradictions. Taking action on the climate crisis requires reassessing current extractive and manufacturing practices, not accelerating them. Environmental concerns about site impacts, land and water dispossession of indigenous groups and local communities, and the pollution driven by manufacturing and distribution remain critical concerns. While these massive investments will drive future urban transformation and bring prosperity to communities nation-wide, how can designers can help envisioniong a more just urban transition? Can we use the power of design to imagine a path to decreased consumption to reverse course on the alarming trends of planetary devastation?
This panel invites contributors on a wide-ranging set of approaches to the JUT through the lens of lithium production and distribution, from emergent industrial types and infrastructural logics, to policy and urban governance approaches to industrial innovation, to experimental . In every instance, we want to be intentional about the redistribution of challenges and opportunities across territories and communities, reclaiming a more active role of the designer in the process.

  1.      Inflation Reduction Act Guidebook, Link

  2.          Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries (FCAB). National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries 2021–2030. Executive Summary. June 2021. Link 1 and Link 2

  3.          Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act), Link

  4.          Biden–Harris Administration Awards $2.8 Billion to Supercharge U.S. Manufacturing of Batteries for Electric Vehicles and Electric Grid, Link

  5.             America’s New ‘Battery Belt’ Is Shifting the Auto Industry South, Link

Cases Studies/Potential focus:

-     Tahoe-Reno Industrial Park:
Official website: Here.
'The countryside is where the radical changes are': Rem Koolhaas goes rural”, Here.
-     OMA Countryside, Here
-     BlueOval Battery Park on Marshall:
   BlueOval Battery Park Michigan, Here.
Ford's gearing up to announce a $3.5 billion battery plant in Marshall, Michigan, Here.
-     The Battery Belt:
America’s New ‘Battery Belt’ Is Shifting the Auto Industry South, Here.
-     Ford's new Michigan Central Detroit Campus:
Michigan Central, Here.
Ford Reveals Plans for Inclusive, Vibrant, Walkable Mobility Innovation District Around Michigan Central Station, Here.


 

Potential Guests:

-      Matthew Seiber, UVA, contribution from his new book “The Dark Side of Green: A Narrative Atlas of the Costs and Cautions Behind Our Renewable Energy Utopia”

-      Jesse LeCavalier and/or Ali Fard

       They are working a lot on infrastructures, data centers, etc… and we could specifically ask them to reflect on the urbanities of these “entities”

-      Marina Otero

She got the Wheelwright with Future Storage: Architectures to Host the Metaverse.

She has recently conducted this workshop that seems relevant to the initiative

-      Robert Fishman, to talk about The Solar Suburb. He is an architectural historian and can provide a provocative intro to urban imagination in a post-carbon world.

-     Sarah Hughes, UM, Just Urban Transitions: Toward a Research Agenda, Here.

LITHIUM CONSUMPTION + RECYCLING

Moderator: Mona El Khafif, University of Virginia
Abstract

Lithium is omnipresent in consumer electronics, lithium-ion batteries powering electric vehicles and being used as energy storage for renewables, including electricity storage on the grid that can help balance out intermittent renewable power sources like wind and solar energy. As such, increased Lithium consumption is a new, accepted reality if we want to realize the urgently needed decarbonization goals to build a more sustainable future worldwide. With demand increasing, this rare earth metal is considered one of the most critical elements to the transition toward a low-carbon economy: an enabler for a “green new future” and driving urban transformation processes through integrating smart urban technologies Besides implementing batteries in cellphones, e-bikes, solar-, and wind farms, specifically, the promoted increase of electric cars will accelerate lithium consumption across the globe. This rapid transformation will jump-start urban transformation processes that offer the opportunity to re-think current urban typologies and call for urban innovation. How can area-wide installations of utility-scale solar plants, for example, aim to improve land use rather than degrade existing greenfields? What about charging stations? Are these sites non-places like gas stations, or can we develop and co-produce new typologies that serve multiple purposes and stakeholders - human and non-human alike - as green new commons?  Unlike hazardous gas stations or oil refineries, electric charging points and solar farms can become public places coupled and hybridized with other urban and rural programs and institutions.
To put it into numbers, by 2030, there could be 26 million electric cars in the U.S., which means that more than ten times the number of electric vehicle chargers that exist today will be needed.


In Brazil alone, according to data from the Brazilian Electric Vehicle Association (ABVE), the number of electric cars sold increased by 255% from 2020 to 2021, while the traditional car market only rose by 3% In the same year.1


Lastly, while the increase in lithium battery consumption will be a probable future, we need to integrate lithium recycling as a closing phase in this global metabolism. What will happen to the unpredictable amount of lithium batteries once they serve their purpose? Is recycling, not only an important factor before unleashing an increased consumption but an objective that should apply to existing land resources in general? How can we close the loop without minimal waste production? Models for new Productive City?


Addressing climate change will offer the opportunity to improve the urban landscapes and environments emerging from consumption and recycling patterns. What new types of spaces can we consider while implementing new green industries? Can they operate as multifunctional sites of repair and green new commons? And lastly, how can we use this paradigm shift to reduce consumption without loss?


This session brings together planners, thinkers, urban designers, architects, EV advocates, engineers, and CEOs of international charging companies seeking to improve our urban environments for a sustainable future.

Suggested Speakers:

Gary Koenig, Associate Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering UVA [Expert on battery technology. “Currently, energy storage is a major challenge for various applications. Batteries with higher energy density, better safety, and lower cost will be needed to continue the deployment of vehicles in the transportation sector that rely on electrical energy to drive their motors. In addition, energy storage is needed for intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar when weather conditions limit energy generation. Improving battery performance will require innovations in battery materials, chemistries, and architectures.” Note: I hope Gary can also talk about recycling alternatively, I am sure he might be able to hint at an expert in this field.
 
Cathy Zoi, Chief Executive Officer & Director EVgo Fast Charging
[CEO and Director of one of the largest fast-charging networks dedicated to 100% renewable energy. “More than 140 million people in the U.S. — and more than 80% of Californians — live within a 10-mile drive of an EVgo fast charger. With more than 850 fast charging locations, our charging network in more than 30 states serves over 60 metropolitan areas - and we plan to triple in size over the next five years. For every kilowatt-hour (kWh) consumed on our network, EVgo purchases a corresponding kWh renewable energy credit (REC) from an accredited REC supplier. By powering more than 400 million electric miles since 2018, EVgo drivers have reduced the U.S. carbon footprint by 180,000 metric tons.]
 
Chelsea Sexton, EV Advisor, and Advocate, [Chelsea has been working to accelerate electric transportation since the mid-1990s as part of the ground-breaking General Motors EV1 program (featured in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?). She co-founded Plug In America, guided VantagePoint Capital Partners’ early investment in Tesla Motors, and now works as an advisor, speaker, and collaborator with companies and for communities, non-profits, and policymakers worldwide.]
 
Claire Weisz, Principal in Charge, WXY Studio NY, TOR, DC [Born and raised in Alberta, Claire Weisz is the Founding Principal of New-York-based WXY architecture + urban design, which is globally recognized for its place-based approach to architecture, urban design, and planning including Electric vehicle system planning. In 2019 Fast Company named WXY one of the World’s Most Innovative Architecture Firms.]
 
James Alexander Silvester, Lead Architect JAS Group [Winner of the Electric Fueling Station of the Future Competition launch by Parkland2, Canada in 2022. “It's as if Steve Jobs had asked them to design something. As people, we are moved by beauty. It would represent a radical change from gas stations as we know them.” — jury member and architect Bruce Kuwabara, KPMB]

I would like to add someone who can talk about recycling [not only batteries but urban landscapes and waste in general. A thinker, a futurologist maybe, someone who can wake ups up]

References:

Projects.

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