This article is part of the ZEIT-ONLINE focus "If possible, please turn to Mobility" from our Department X. You can find a selection of other topics here.
In 2010, when Dirk Harbecke saw the first Teslas on the streets, he came up with the idea for big money. "At the time, I had no idea what lithium was," says the German start-up entrepreneur who founded a company in Canada. But he knew that no electric car could do without the element. And in that he saw his chance.
His bill was simple: electric vehicles run on battery power, and conventional car batteries are built with lithium, a particularly light, soft and chemically reactive metal.
So Harbecke invested in a license for lithium mining near a lake in the Canadian province of Ontario. The company is tiny, it has only three employees, but the founder has great plans with her. "We are in the phase of feasibility studies," he says. In two years, his company should start promoting the coveted substance. The right material for a worldwide battery boom - wants to get rich with the Harbecke. So far the plan.
6,183 kilometers from Harbeck's Claim, in the northern Harz foreland, a column of black transport buses rolls into an industrial hall on Monday afternoon. VW has invited press representatives from European countries to its Salzgitter plant to witness the opening of a new production facility for car battery cells. "Now it really starts with the electrification," says VW CEO Stefan Sommer, who is responsible for the components and procurement. Engineers in light gray factory jackets praise the technology ("the most modern methods in the world"), and at the edge of the hall park future cars. The battery-powered Porsche Taycan (761 hp). The supposedly CO₂-neutral produced small car ID.3. An electric beetle.
The demo fits well with the German climate debate. Not only VW, but all major German car manufacturers are currently switching to electric motors. For the time being, VW relies on batteries made of lithium, cobalt, nickel and a number of other metals in passenger vehicles. The new plant in Salzgitter will allow experiments with the latest battery technology. The group is also building a factory for mass production, also in Salzgitter, together with the Swedish battery supplier Northvolt. There production is scheduled to start in 2023.
At the moment, things are looking good for Volkswagen, partly because the costs of some raw materials are falling. "Lithium prices have been steady since the end of the first quarter," London-based commodity market experts announced earlier this week by consulting firm CRU. Lithium carbonate was last 20 percent cheaper than at the beginning of the year. You should expect the opposite: If more and more electric cars on the road, demand and price would rise. But because just in China, a subsidy program for electric cars expires, not so much lithium is ordered. But that's a short-term effect.
German industry is at the mercy of monopolists
In the medium term, hardly anyone doubts that the demand for batteries for cars, buses, trucks, ships, taxis and e-scooters will increase massively in the coming years. VW, Tesla, General Motors, BMW: Over the past few years, one major manufacturer has committed itself to e-mobility after the next. At the end of 2018, the Joint Research Center of the European Union predicted that 200 million electric cars would be on the roads in ten years worldwide, and that in 20 years it could even reach 900 million - more than five million today. The demand for lithium-ion batteries will increase seven to fifty times, depending on the evolution of demand and technology. Lithium and other battery raw materials will be in high demand in the future.
On Monday lunchtime, Frank Blome, head of Volkswagen's Battery Department, will be at the factory in Salzgitter. He says that he sees "absolutely no problems" in procuring battery cells and the necessary raw materials. This attitude is widespread in German industry. "There are currently no bottlenecks in the supply of raw materials and in battery cell production for Germany," says Matthias Wachter, who heads the department for safety and raw materials at the Federation of German Industries (BDI).
The scenario of the German optimists looks like this: In the past few years a lot of lithium, cobalt and the like has already been promoted. The stocks are still enough for a few years, because the business with electric cars is still small. The true boom is yet to come, and it starts from a low level.