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The importance of being lithium (in the age of the e-mobility)

30.4.2019
The importance of being lithium (in the age of the e-mobility)

Lithium is, no doubt, the key element for the batteries of the electric cars. Why is it so important? And how is it extracted and processed? We explain all here.

Lithium will in the near future be one of the most sought-after raw materials on earth. According to forecasts, the worldwide demand for lithium will more than double by 2023 – largely owing to processing in electric car batteries. Ensuring the supply of this element in order to cover company requirements is crucial, that’s why the Volkswagen Group has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Chinese company Ganfeng Lithium Co., Ltd. for a long-term procurement. Under the agreement, Ganfeng will supply lithium to the Volkswagen Group and its suppliers for the next ten years.

Lithium and its “brothers”

Basically, five main raw materials are required for the production of lithium-ion battery cells for electric cars: graphite on the anode side; and cobalt, nickel and manganese, that are used alongside lithium – which is also contained in the electrolyte – on the cathode side.

Lithium is currently regarded as an unrivalled charge carrier that will be irreplaceable for the foreseeable future, as no other element offers comparable properties for automotive battery applications.

It is a different matter, for the other elements: the percentage of cobalt, for example, is to be reduced from its present 12-14 % (weight proportion in the cathode) to 5% within the next three to five years; the Volkswagen Group is also working on further development of cobalt-free batteries.

Extraction, processing and recycling

The alkaline metal lithium occurs in numerous Countries. Lithium extraction in salt lakes – predominantly in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia – is deemed more complicated, since the evaporation process can be severely affected by factors such as rain, snow and natural contaminants, and the impact on the environment can be potentially problematic. Extraction from ore deposits, on the other hand, is more practical: it is more stable, easier to scale and generally more sustainable. Lithium extracted from ore in this manner is also more suitable for next-generation batteries. The world market leader in this sector is Australia, a Country with a stable political system, a high degree of transparency and ambitious environmental standards – Ganfeng will be supplying the Volkswagen Group with lithium taken from several Australian mines.

The Group is also committed in promoting lithium production in Europe – there are relevant deposits in Central and Southern Europe, for example. Several production steps are required before the lithium enters the cell: first, the raw material is extracted from the rock, then processed in chemical processes to produce concentrate and hydroxide, then processed with cobalt, manganese and nickel to form a mixed oxide, applied to an aluminium foil, inserted as a wound foil into the cell housing and mixed with electrolytes. The goal is to implement as many of these steps as possible in Europe.

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The last component in the Group’s lithium strategy- in terms of timescales, but certainly not for importance - is recycling: today, it is still difficult to recuperate “technical lithium” using the current processes, that’s why Volkswagen Group is working to develop its own method. Research has also been focused for some time on how more materials can be repurposed by means of battery recycling. By the end of 2019, the Group’s recycling facility in Salzgitter will be operating; innovative recycling processes will be developed there, although batteries will not be returned for recycling in significant numbers until 2030.

A sustainable value-creation chain

Developing common standards and tools to minimise ecological impact, and to establish them worldwide: this is the goal which the Volkswagen Group set in joining sustainability programs such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Battery Alliance and the Responsible Minerals Initiative. The measures undertaken within the scope of these various projects are supported by the company's own regulations and checks along the entire value-creation chain, which are facilitated by the increased transparency through the direct procurement of materials.

SourceVolkswagen AG