Fact check: Viral image shows coal mining machine, not lithium mining

The claim: A machine must move 500 tons of earth to make one lithium car battery

A post circulating widely on Facebook shows an enormous mining machine and claims to detail the earth moving needed to fuel electric vehicles.

"This machine is required to move 500 tons of earth/ ore which will be refined into one lithium car battery," reads the beginning of an Aug. 1 Facebook post that was shared over 21,000 times in two months. "It burns 900-1000 gallons of fuel in a 12 hour shift."

Several other users reposted the image, getting hundreds or even thousands of additional shares.

But the claim is false.

The machine in the photo, a Bagger 288, is actually used for coal mining. Most lithium extraction comes from brining, which involves evaporating groundwater, experts say.

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USA TODAY reached out to several users who shared the claim for comment.

Mining is not required to produce lithium

Most of the world's lithium comes from brine, which is underground salty water.

Brendan Moran, a research hydrologist with the University of Massachusetts, explained in an email that brine lithium extraction involves pumping out the water from underneath the aquifers of salt flats. Aquifers are sediments or other rock bodies that hold groundwater.

After this, the water is put in large, shallow ponds and left to evaporate, Moran said. This can take up to 18 months.

And the pictured machine is "absolutely not used in brine operations," Moran added. He said there is very little heavy machinery involved in the process at all.

"Lithium derived from brine uses the least amount of freshwater and produces (less greenhouse gases) than other lithium sources," he said, citing a 2021 study.

While some are still concerned with the environmental effects of lithium brining, a study Moran and his colleagues published on July 12 "shows no observable environmental impacts in the largest lithium producing basin in the world after 40 years of continuous extraction."

Machine mines lignite – and used to mine coal

Thyssenkrupp, a German company, created the buck wheel excavator pictured in the post. The Bagger 288, which was created in 1978, remains one of the world's largest land vehicles.

It is a "mobile strip mining machine," according to The Telegraph, a newspaper in the United Kingdom. It is not used to mine lithium.

"It has been in operation at the Garzweiler open-pit lignite mines (in Germany) since 2001, prior to which it was used to dig coal at the Hambach mine 22 kilometers away," it says on the ThyssenKrupp website.

Lignite, otherwise known as "brown coal," is primarily used to generate electricity. It is not a material used in electric car batteries, although it may be used to recharge the battery.

The poster also outlined the materials needed for a battery in an "average Tesla" – but this was also inaccurate.

Zach Agioutantis, the chair of the Mining Engineering Department at the University of Kentucky, said in an email the amounts of nickel, copper and aluminum were roughly accurate. However, the post listed "double the projection for lithium, 4 times the projections for cobalt and 19 times the projections for manganese."

Vijay Ramani, a professor in the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington in St. Louis, said the weight of the battery was roughly accurate at 1,000 pounds.

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Despite the environmental drawbacks of using lithium, electric vehicles are still better for the environment than gas-powered ones, experts say.

After driving an electric vehicle for one to three years, it has a net positive environmental impact, Ramani said. Once an electric vehicle can't be used anymore, the battery can then be used for stationary energy storage, he said. This could be wind or solar power.

Electric vehicles also produce fewer emissions, USA TODAY reported.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that a machine must move 500 tons of earth to make one lithium car battery. Heavy mining machinery is not required to produce lithium. The machine shown in the post is used to mine coal and lignite.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Viral image shows coal mining machine, not lithium mining