Once upon a time …there was the dirty resource business!
"Dirty" resources for clean electric cars? In public discourse scarcity of raw materials, poor working conditions and high water consumption often cast a shadow on the praised electric motor. But what does the reality look like when you examine the extraction of battery raw materials such as among others lithium or cobalt?
Water consumption equivalent to half a pair of jeans
Water consumption in the production of lithium for electric mobility is often criticized. A battery researcher puts this reproach into perspective: Maximilian Fichtner, Director at the Helmholtz Institute for Electrochemical Energy Storage in Ulm, has calculated that a total of 3840 liters of water evaporate for the lithium in an electric car battery with a capacity of 64 kWh. This corresponds to the water consumption for the production of 250 grams of beef, 10 avocados, 30 cups of coffee or half a pair of jeans.
An electric car battery is therefore more sustainable in terms of water consumption than jeans, especially since it also has a considerably longer life and the lithium can be recovered by recycling at the end of the battery's life.
Oil production requires far more water
Lithium is also used in large quantities in many industrial and chemical processes. The water consumption of the classic internal combustion engine is even much higher, the researcher added. At present, 17.5 billion liters of oil are consumed worldwide per day, and 46 billion liters of water are needed to produce it.
"With this water, lithium could be extracted for 1.5 million large Tesla batteries - every day. And the water used for oil production does not evaporate, as is the case with lithium production, it is often poisoned."
Director, Helmholtz Institute for Electrochemical Energy Storage
The comparison is not intended to trivialize the environmental problems caused by lithium production – but to place them in the context of the water requirements of other consumer goods. Against this background, criticism of the water consumption of electric car batteries is not justified.
Ethical aspects are receiving more and more attention
Even in the extraction of cobalt, often criticized for child labour, one must put things into perspective. There are several solutions to the problem of child labour. Some manufacturers have already adapted their supply chains and will in future no longer obtain cobalt for their batteries from the Congo, but, like BMW for example, from Morocco and Australia. But also in Congo, the world's largest cobalt producer, the production of this resource will now be monitored more responsibly. The CTC system (Certified Trading Chains) in the Central African country, which was initiated by the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) and further developed with the Congolese government, is now being extended to cobalt. Another step in the right direction towards more transparency is the new supply chain law, which will oblige companies to monitor the labour and social standards of their global suppliers.
Availability of resources
According to a study by the “Öko-Institut”, the required resources for batteries such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and graphite are sufficiently available globally. At times, however, bottlenecks are possible for some resources if the required production volumes cannot be increased quickly enough. To ensure that these valuable raw materials can be made available in sufficient quantities in the distant future, recycling is becoming increasingly important. The study states that by 2030, ten percent of lithium and cobalt demand could come from recycling. In 2050, the institute predicts a share of 40%. In the long term, a recycling quota of up to 97 percent is possible. Rare resources are therefore needed less and less. Researchers around the world are already looking for alternative technologies for electric car batteries that can be made with much less or even completely without cobalt and other limited raw materials.