Lithium, cobalt and co.: raw materials for electromobility

Me energy is economical with electric cars. The same cannot be said for their desire for mineral raw materials. An electric drive needs about six times as much of it compared to a combustion engine. Batteries work thanks to nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite lithium. The motors often require rare earths and always copper. The good news is that the planet will not be short of any of these commodities for the foreseeable future. Even the area that has been and still has to be occupied for its extraction is infinitesimally small compared to what the miners of fossil raw materials or agriculture claim for themselves.

In order to comply with the limits of the Paris climate agreement, however, the demand from the automotive industry for these mineral raw materials would have to multiply over the next 20 years. In a study from May 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) assumes that the demand for cobalt and nickel for the cathodes and the demand for graphite for the anodes will increase by a factor of about twenty. Lithium can even surpass this value: in 2040, the automotive industry and manufacturers of battery storage systems are likely to want to buy forty times as much as today.

These treasures lie in rocks in the ground, in brine basins or in pit water. Only the pace at which they are being raised cannot keep up with this potential demand in the near future, the IEA warns. What the organization registers in terms of investments and new projects is not enough. For the question of what e-tron, Tesla and Zoe cost in the end and whether people can afford the electrified transport turnaround is not insignificant. A large proportion of the cost of cells is now due to the materials that make them up. If they are expensive – because they are in short supply – this is likely to have a significant impact on consumer prices. The trend of rapidly becoming cheaper lithium-ion batteries, which has been going on for years, could then at least be slowed down.

An oligopoly for primary funding

Lithium plays a special role as a raw material in all forecasts. The reactive light metal is almost irreplaceable. At least not on a large scale and not for that electric car in everyday life. It is all the more important who supplies the valuable commodity to the industry, and here too there are problems. The German Raw Materials Agency identifies an oligopoly for primary funding, with a few large companies dominating the market – and only a few states. The three most important producing countries supply about 90 percent of the lithium mined worldwide, first of all Australia (48 percent), Chile (26 percent) and finally China (16 percent). It is mined from rock and from lithium-containing brines from salt lakes, with the latter having the better environmental and CO2 balance in comparison.

A lot has been happening in Europe recently, too. Projects in the Czech Republic, in the German Upper Rhine Valley, in Spain, Portugal, Austria and Finland want to use the local deposits, which definitely exist. The German Raw Materials Agency has calculated that the EU could cover up to a third of its own needs in 2030. That gives you a little leeway. The economic community would still remain dependent on imports.

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