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Researching and educating consumers about the impacts of lithium mining

Wenjuan Liu

With so much focus and attention on the benefit of electric vehicles, Wenjuan Liu became interested in exploring possible consequences and educating consumers.

December 08, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2021 graduates.

Electric vehicles are marketed as better for the environment and a good way to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But the push to go electric may come with a hidden cost: lithium mining. It's a concern that Wenjuan Liu is exploring further while earning her PhD in sustainability at the School of Sustainability in the College of Global Futures.

Lithium is a key material in the rechargeable batteries used to power electric vehicles, and Chile is one of the largest producers of lithium in the world. As the demand for electric vehicles increases, so does the demand for lithium. But Liu has found that extraction methods can damage the natural environments and cause problems for people living there. She is researching the environmental and social impacts of lithium mining in Chile.

"I explored how mining activities affected the general environmental conditions and the social livelihood and daily lives of people living there," said Liu. "I then built a model to simulate how resources and social stress were changed by those mining activities. I'm trying to find ways to better manage those kinds of impacts."

With so much focus and attention on the benefit of electric vehicles, Liu became interested in exploring possible consequences and educating consumers. She found that many people were not even aware of the impacts of mineral extraction, like water consumption, vegetation degradation and disturbance on the local communities. And once consumers were told about those impacts, they were often hesitant to suggest any ideas to diminish them.

"We thought consumers who buy electric vehicles would want to do more and mobilize more resources to counter the impacts. But we found they are actually less likely to recognize those impacts at first and reluctant to suggest any policy or governance actions to diminish them. It caused cognitive dissonance," said Liu. "There was discomfort psychologically because it contrasted with the belief that they were doing something good for the environment.

"That highlighted suggestions for future policies to alleviate that. Electric car automakers should not greenwash their products or advertise by only focusing on the positive benefits of their products. They need to start educating consumers about the potential upstream impact of their products and what actions they will take to mitigate those impacts."

During her time at ASU, Liu has also helped other students excel in their research and projects. She taught classes on systems dynamics and future thinking and strategies as part of her teaching assistantship with the School of Sustainability. 

After graduation, Liu will continue her work and research at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit organization that works with companies to reduce their environmental impact. Liu is using the skills she learned at ASU to make a difference in the communities she researches.

"I learned a lot from the School of Sustainability," said Liu. "This entire journey taught me things that will be very helpful in my future career. The pace of research, weekly meetings with my adviser and available opportunities really cultivated my lifestyle. It all helped me to push myself harder and achieve the goals in my life."

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: My background is in environmental science. While earning my bachelor's and master's degrees at other universities, I realized it's not complete to only focus on the environmental system because the social system is closely related to it. When I was looking into a PhD degree, I started researching universities that offer a sustainability degree or interdisciplinary school. That's when I found ASU and the School of Sustainability. I also had a campus visit and spoke with several professors and staff members about research opportunities. I was instantly intrigued by the interdisciplinary research being done, the collaboration opportunities and the scholarship opportunities that could fund my research in the future.

Q: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: While earning my master's degree, I was a research assistant for a project about advanced packaging materials for food products. We were trying to determine if advanced packaging can reduce environmental impact. In the middle of the project, I realized that human behavior plays a very important role in environmental impact reduction. Even though you have very advanced material, it's hard to predict human behavior. That made me wonder, if we only focus on the environmental perspective, how would that be applied in the general society, and how would that erase the public awareness of either impact reduction or corporate reduction? That's why I decided to pursue a higher degree in sustainability. I realized human behavior and social dimension are important for general sustainability.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A:  My adviser, Assistant Professor Buyung Agusdinata, has been very supportive. He always has a lot of ideas to share with me, and we explore those ideas together. He also understands that things change in my life, and there are times I need to slow down. He gives me the space and time to recover. He also gives suggestions and recommendations for scholarships, career opportunities and just life in general. I really appreciate the support I received from him during my journey. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A:  PhD study is a marathon; it takes time, so don't rush. Also, when you enter the sustainability PhD program, start thinking about the research you want to focus on and the research question you want to answer. Without a clear focus, you may struggle or get lost because there are a lot of complex problems and system elements involved in the sustainability field. Gather clear research questions and communicate with advisers or other professors that are relevant to your research. They can give you clear recommendations for the questions you are researching.

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