No matter what we tell ourselves to obscure the obvious, fossil fuel is being depleted from the bowels of our Earth at a rapid rate. Though petrol and diesel are the most prominent items on any given list of by-products, they’re far from the only non-renewable resource that the automotive industry gobbles up.
Any kind of metal also falls into the “once it’s gone, it’s gone” category, but luckily it is still available more abundantly than crude oil. Mining for it is a real pain in the neck, though, which is why much of the steel and aluminium used to construct the car you drive was most likely not extracted from the ground recently.
Rather, it was recycled from something else - an old cooking pot, maybe, or the beams from a demolished building. Lithium is another metal that’s mined out of the ground, and you might recognise this material as the cornerstone of the present-day lithium-ion battery. Not only is it a nasty and costly process to obtain lithium in large quantities, but we’re quickly reaching a point where our increasing dependence on this one resource is only setting us up for a big smack across the face.
There are entire countries that have - haphazardly - set in motion (or slapped together) a plan to disallow the sale of cars powered by internal combustion engines as early as 2030. In our ongoing collective attempts to promote sustainability and reduce the environmental toll that humanity takes on the planet, simply jumping from one non-renewable resource to another (that’s potentially less abundant) is both counterproductive and just plain stupid.
Just like lithium, cobalt is another metal that’s essential to the production of lithium-ion batteries, exactly the kind that’s on the verge of swelling to even more ridiculous levels of demand as mobile devices and, most especially, electric cars continue to increase. As you might know, an EV’s battery is its largest, heaviest, and most expensive component.
One of the reasons why China has such a booming EV industry comes from its in-border supplies of cobalt and lithium. Though they only account for a respective 7% and 37% of the total global production volume annually, it’s enough to rank them as the world’s second largest producer.
This, among other concerns, were highlighted in the September 2020 report by the European Commission titled ‘Critical Raw Materials Resilience: Charting a Path Towards Greater Security and Sustainability’.
Outside of China, the majority of lithium and cobalt supply comes from a collection of third-world countries in Africa and South America where conditions are even more hazardous and labour is even cheaper. Specifically, material sourcing is largely concentrated around Chile and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Credit- Julien Harneis (Flickr)
While lithium and cobalt deposits are far from limited to these regions, most other countries are hesitant to engage in or allow these type of mining and raw material processing given the high use of poisonous chemicals and the resulting waste that, if mishandled, renders vast expanses of land barren and saturated with toxic spillover.
The life-threatening conditions in and around lithium and cobalt mining are ballooning into one of the worst humanitarian and environmental crises in recent times, yet the ‘low’ price of consistent material supply is only made possible at the expense of (1) a destitute population of men, women and child workers that are often willing to risk permanent and chronic health conditions, even death, to provide for the survival of themselves and families and (2) governments willing to look the other way, sacrificing their landscape, people, and even children to be exploited and forever scarred, in the name of profit.
Apple, potentially the largest single consumer electronics company that relies on lithium-ion batteries in their laptops, tablets, and smartphones, had publicly walked away from conducting any business with supply chain vendors that source battery materials from the DRC because of the rampant human rights abuses. While that’s a good start, too many other companies have not taken an equally aggressive stance.
If we think that EVs are already priced at too high a premium, it sounds like we’re in for a very rude awakening once battery supply gets even more constrained and/or the cost of labour starts to - justifiably - climb.
There are also concerns around the sustainability of high volume natural graphite production, another material used in electric vehicle batteries, alongside the heavy rare-earth elements used to manufacture the permanent magnet motors they power, but these aren’t as immediately pressing as the looming crisis of lithium and cobalt shortages and cost.
According to that same report, in order to meet its targets for EV battery and energy storage, the EU estimates that it would need up to 60x more lithium and 15x more cobalt by 2050. Not only is that likely to be a conservative estimation, it’s but a fraction of the demand from the rest of the world.
Makes you think.
In the short term, though, Volkswagen is therefore very wise in their efforts to streamline and promote the recycling of batteries to lighten their dependency on these valuable raw and non-renewable materials.
With their newly launched plant in Salzgitter, Germany, their goal is to eventually achieve an industrialised closed-loop process to recover and reuse more than 90% of elements such as lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt.
VW’s next-generation of batteries are also purported to feature a unique design and chemical makeup to allow for easier dismantling and raw material segmentation in a manner that significantly reduces CO2 emissions by, for example not requiring energy-intensive melting in a blast furnace.
“As a consequence, essential components of old battery cells can be used to produce new cathode material,” explains Mark Möller, Head of the Business Unit Technical Development & E- Mobility.
“From research, we know that recycled battery raw materials are just as efficient as new ones. In the future, we intend to support our battery cell production with the material we recover. Given that the demand for batteries and the corresponding raw materials will increase drastically, we can put every gram of recycled material to good use.”