Electric mobility is booming around the world. The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects that 125 million electrically powered vehicles will be in use ten years from now. Today the automotive industry is concentrating its efforts on lithium-ion technology. Yet scientists and companies have had their eyes on alternatives for long time.
Every smartphone contains approximately one to three grams of it. A notebook computer contains up to 40 grams, and a vehicle battery needs between six and 40 kilograms. We are talking about lithium. This alkali metal has overtaken gold and oil in importance. It has become an indispensable component in mobile electronic devices such as smartphones and laptops. Without it – and without cobalt, coltan and rare earth metals for that matter – there would be no revolution on the roads and no digitization. Dealers and investors call lithium “white gold.” This has resulted in a geopolitical race. Above all China, as the leading market for electric mobility, is attempting to secure a major proportion of the deposits and is buying up reserves, particularly in resource-rich Africa. China has the greatest capacities for refining the raw materials needed in batteries. What is more, battery cells ultimately account for around 40 percent of the value created during the manufacture of an electric vehicle. Europe is limping behind the international competition when it comes to cell production. Almost all the largest battery makers are Asian companies: AESC (Automotive Energy Supply Corporation) and Panasonic from Japan, the Chinese firms BYD, CATL and Farasis, plus LG Chem and Samsung SDI from South Korea. So the European automotive industry is maintaining relations with several strategic suppliers in order to secure its supply of batteries in all the regions of the world.
Yet there are now several alliances and consortia in Europe aiming to reduce dependence and to secure stabile supplier relations in the future. Germany records the strongest growth with its various factory projects. VW, for instance, is currently working with the Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt to construct a battery cell factory in Salzgitter. And the EU is making over three billion euros available to support numerous projects. A joint venture by Opel, its French parent company Groupe PSA and Total subsidiary Saft aims to produce cells for one million e-vehicles by 2030. Tesla Motors is planning to build not only cars but also batteries at its new gigafactory in Grünheide, near Berlin. A meta study by the Fraunhofer ISI on behalf of the VDMA calculates that production capacity will reach 500 to 600 GWh by 2030. At present, Europe has production capacities of around 30 GWh. The European Commission estimates the market potential for vehicle batteries produced in Europe at up to 250 billion euros.
Alongside manganese, cobalt and nickel, today’s automotive lithium-ion batteries require up to 40 kilos of lithium depending on their output. According to an analysis by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), total global lithium extraction in 2018 came to about 95,000 tons – a record amount in one year. The prices of the alkali metal had been rising inexorably for years, but in 2019 the prices of lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide plummeted, losing up to 50 percent on the spot and futures markets. One ton of 99.9 percent pure lithium cost USD 120,000 at the beginning of last year, but by December the price had fallen to only USD 82,000. Along with the collapsing prices, worldwide capacities also fell to 77,000 tons. Furthermore, according to the experts at Benchmark Minerals Intelligence, the downward price trend continued unabated in 2020. Australia is easily holding onto the top spot among the exporting countries, on 42,000 tons of extracted lithium. Here the metal is mined as hard-rock lithium called spodumene. In the Americas, Chile is the leading export nation, obtaining its lithium from salt lakes. Lithium-containing groundwater is pumped to the surface from a depth of up to 400 meters, and evaporates in large basins. The remaining salt solution is processed in several stages before it is ready to be used in batteries.
Again and again we hear critical reports about the extraction of raw materials. Expert opinion is divided. There are up to eight processing stages and intermediate suppliers between the mines and batteries in use – which renders the supply chain opaque. However, the German automotive industry wishes to secure a sustainable supply of all raw materials, especially cobalt. The great majority of cobalt is extracted in industrial opencast mines, but illegal mines also exist where people seek out the precious mineral in an unregulated manner. The associated environmental, social and safety conditions are inacceptable to the German automotive industry. For this reason, German manufacturers and suppliers are taking action in the Drive Sustainability initiative, the Responsible Minerals Initiative and the Global Battery Alliance of the World Economic Forum. The upstream supply chains for the raw materials are examined all the way to the initial extraction, all the suppliers are identified and sustainability risks are exposed. In addition, the companies take measures to minimize risks, and use their negotiating power and political connections to improve environmental and social standards along the entire supply chain.
The world’s total lithium deposits are estimated at 80 million tons. This figure is increasing steadily, as the scientific and industrial exploration of extraction sites is also expanding greatly. The world’s largest reserves are thought to be located in the Andean “Lithium Triangle” in Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. In Bolivia’s western highlands, roughly 20 million tons of lithium are thought to lie buried below the 10,000 square kilometers of salt flats called “Salar de Uyuni.” Apart from Portugal, Europe doesn’t seem to have any deposits worth mentioning – at least not yet. The Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT) has developed a new procedure called the Grimmer-Saravia process for filtering lithium ions out of local thermal water. Its advantage is that it uses the existing infrastructure in geothermal plants, which carry up to two billion liters of thermal water every year. The scientists now want to set up a test facility in cooperation with industrial partners.
The foundation for lithium-ion batteries was laid by the researchers John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino – which earned them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019. “I think we can make the batteries at least double the energy density of those today. You know, we can’t go much beyond that. It’s not like Moore’s law for semi-conductors, so there is an ultimate limit,” Whittingham says in an interview. Alongside technical limits and reliance on raw materials, research institutes and companies are also working on alternatives. Lithium-sulfur batteries don’t manage without lithium altogether. This type of battery will probably be cheaper than lithium-ion systems with the same capacity, but also considerably larger due to their lower energy density. On the other hand, this battery type requires less lithium in its manufacture. Research into solid-state batteries has come a relatively long way. In contrast to conventional lithium-ion batteries, here a solid material replaces the liquid electrolyte. This increases the energy density, resulting in a longer range from the same volume. Moreover, the battery no longer has to be cooled, which reduces both weight and costs.
This has made the industry prick up its ears: Volkswagen has been investing in the Californian company QuantumScape since 2012, with the aim of producing solid-state battery cells on a large scale. And Mercedes-Benz, for example, is already optionally equipping its eCitaro electro buses with a solid-state battery. Researchers at KIT and the Helmholtz Institute Ulm use magnesium in their solid-state technology. This particular element is 3,000 times more common than lithium. One of the scientists at KIT has estimated that the worldwide reserves of magnesium are sufficient to last for 450,000 years. Lithium reserves, by contrast, could be exhausted within a few decades. Magnesium batteries would accordingly be much cheaper than lithium-ion batteries. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich are using sodium instead. Furthermore, researchers at the Max Planck Institute want to create battery components such as electrodes, electrolyte and separators from renewable raw materials like vanillin, chitosan and ionic liquids. And IBM has developed a new cell chemistry that doesn’t need any cobalt at all and whose minerals can be extracted from seawater. Which of the new super-batteries will win out? Battery research is going to stay exciting for quite a while.
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