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04-07-2023 | Automotive | In the Spotlight | Article

Lithium Supply is Sufficient for Battery Production

Author: Frank Urbansky

3:30 min reading time

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Worldwide, the production of electric cars is increasing - and with it the demand for lithium for traction batteries. A study shows how the supply of this and other metals is secured.

Circular economy and sustainability must also apply to the production of electric cars. "Concepts that focus not only on closed raw material cycles but also on minimizing the use of resources by using efficient production technologies and substituting materials and technologies should serve to manage the available resources sustainably and with low emissions," is how Springer-Gabler author Kathrin Hesse describes this basis of modern production in her german book chapter Sustainable supply of raw materials - the circular economy and resource efficiency perspective on page 91.

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Virtual Experiments for a Sustainable Battery Cell Production

On the path towards a sustainable society, the availability of energy storage systems is an essential step – leading to increased demand for batteries. To achieve a sustainable society, it is necessary to manufacture batteries also in a sustainable way.

By 2030, the global electric vehicle fleet is expected to comprise around 230 million vehicles. This increase will lead to rising demand for traction batteries and associated raw materials. In particular, graphite, cobalt, lithium and nickel are needed for the production of lithium-ion batteries and are considered critical in terms of security of supply.

Raw Materials Sufficient Even During Ramp-Up

The factsheet "Electromobility and Raw Materials" from the National Organization Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology (NOW) provides information on the global demand for battery capacity up to 2030 and compares it with the production volumes and global resources of the required raw materials.

The key findings show that existing raw material resources are generally sufficient for the global ramp-up of electromobility. However, investments in new mining capacities, efficiency-enhancing and environmentally compatible production processes, the development of new technologies to reduce scarce and questionable raw materials, and the development of a recycling infrastructure are essential.

In 2022, global demand for battery capacity for electric vehicles was around 560 GWh. Demand is expected to increase to 1,100 GWh by 2025 and 3,300 GWh by 2030. This increasing demand is mainly driven by electric cars, which account for more than 80% of the total battery capacity demand for vehicles.

The growing popularity of electric passenger cars is driving this development. To meet the growing demand, investment in battery production and technology will increase significantly.

In addition to electric cars, the demand for battery capacity for other types of electric vehicles such as buses and trucks is also expected to increase as they also gain popularity. As the global electric vehicle fleet continues to grow, and is expected to reach around 230 million vehicles by 2030, the demand for traction batteries and thus for certain raw materials will also increase.

High Dependency on China

Currently, the following proportions of the world's mining output, provided by only 12 countries, are used to produce lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles: lithium 43%, cobalt 38%, nickel 5% and graphite 16%. In addition, these metals must be refined. Interestingly, most of the refining process does not take place in the producing countries themselves, but to a large extent in China. This is particularly true for the refining of battery-grade graphite, whether natural flake graphite or synthetic graphite, of which about 70% is refined there. Similarly, almost 65% of cobalt, 60% of lithium and 35% of nickel are processed in China.

This also raises concerns about potential dependence on a single country for the refining process and the availability of battery raw materials, although these in themselves are plentiful. This could lead to drastic price increases in the event of temporary shortages on the market.

Potential for Optimization and Increased Efficiency

According to the study, there is still great potential for optimizing and increasing efficiency in the development and production of battery electric vehicles. For example, the greenhouse gas balance of batteries can be significantly improved by using them in stationary storage systems in the sense of a "second life".

In addition, rising raw material prices are already leading to recycling becoming increasingly important, as this can reduce the need for new resources. Alternative chemical compositions can also reduce the need for certain raw materials.

Michael Stelter, Deputy Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems (IKTS) in Dresden and Hermsdorf, recommends ceramic technologies for resource-saving energy storage. According to Stelter, any battery production is ultimately a ceramic process. He sees today's electric cars as tomorrow's mines. Although the lithium resources available in the ground would be sufficient for traction batteries, lithium is also in demand for stationary applications, he said. Recycling and efficient use are therefore of great importance. The institute to which Stelter belongs is also working on the latter.

These alternatives could break the link between limited availability and rising prices. "In summary, neither on the demand side (technological development) nor on the supply side (new deposits or improved extraction techniques) can the defining factors for the future global or regional economic development of commodity markets be estimated in the longer term. Short-term changes in these factors cause short-term fluctuations in commodity prices," is how Springer author Volker Wrede describes this fundamental mechanism in his german book chapter How long will our raw materials last? on page 82.

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