The car of the future is no longer powered by diesel or gasoline, experts agree to a large extent. Currently, it looks like cars are going to be powered by electricity in the future. For the lithium batteries of electric cars, the raw materials lithium and cobalt are so far indispensable. Demand will rise sharply in the coming years. But is there enough raw materials for millions of electric cars?
The known occurrences of lithium and cobalt are relatively large. They are unlikely to go out in the foreseeable future. However, there may be bottlenecks for shorter periods of time. The US Geological Survey (USGS) distinguishes between resources and reserves. Resources are the raw materials that exist in nature - regardless of whether there are currently opportunities to mine them. Reserves can be reduced with the latest technology - but that does not mean that there is a mine in operation or a company is extracting lithium. According to the USGS, the known global lithium reserves are about 14 million tons, of cobalt about 6.9 million tons.
The known resources are much higher - at Lithium 62 million tons, at Kobalt 25 million tons on Earth and once again at 120 million tons at the bottom of the oceans. Scientists are currently researching the degradation and possible environmental consequences. The members of the International Maritime Authority are already negotiating a framework for commercial exploitation.
And how many resources are needed? According to a study by the Öko-Institut, in 2016 around 10,000 tons of pure lithium were used for e-cars worldwide. The authors estimate that lithium consumption in 2050 will be 1.1 million tonnes. Demand for cobalt was about 20,000 tonnes in 2016, according to the study. Here, the authors predict an increase to 800,000 tons annually by 2050.
All in all, there is a lot of the raw materials. However, they may not be available for a period of days, weeks or months. "More and more cars are being built, especially now and in the future, so it may be that the raw material extraction and processing will not keep up," says Matthias Buchert, Head of Resources and Mobility at Öko-Institut. Other reasons for delays could be weather events. In South America, lithium is recovered by evaporation of water from salt lakes. "It has happened before that it rained heavily - then this process is delayed," says Buchert. In addition, political events, such as civil wars, could lead to supply of raw materials and supply bottlenecks.
Degradation can harm the environment
Even if the raw materials are not scarce, there is another problem: their extraction often harms the environment and the people in the region of origin. The mining of cobalt involves the danger of gravel water becoming acidic. The ores that are mined can form sulfuric acid in conjunction with water and oxygen. It can poison rivers, lakes and the groundwater. According to a report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), acidic quarries are considered the biggest environmental problem in the mining industry. They are created primarily when mines are no longer operated, not just when mining cobalt.
Lithium promote companies from two different types of deposits. Once through the mining of ores - for example, in Australia. According to the USGS, most of the world's lithium is currently being mined there. Other important deposits are located in salt lakes in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.
When extracting from salt lakes, the large consumption of water is a problem. The salt lakes are usually located in arid areas and the high water consumption causes the groundwater level to drop. As a result, plants can die because they no longer get enough water, and the salt flats live on Andean flamingos, which are threatened with extinction. Lithium mining could destroy their habitat. Buchert from the Öko-Institut demands that environmental impact assessments in each individual project ensure that the groundwater does not sink or is contaminated by saltwater.
According to a report by the Oeko-Institut, the production of ore is bad for the environment, requiring a lot of energy to crush and grind the ore.