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 car batteries.
Basically, five main raw materials are required for the production of lithium-ion battery cells for electric cars. On the cathode side, a compound of the elements cobalt, nickel and manganese functions through its structure as a storage location for the charge carrier lithium, on the anode side this is graphite. Lithium is also contained in the electrolyte. 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. Accordingly, securing access to raw materials and the market is essential.
It is a different matter, for example, for cobalt: the percentage of this raw material is to be reduced from its present 12 to 14 percent (weight proportion in the cathode) to five percent within the next three to five years. Volkswagen is working on further development of cobalt-free batteries.
20125: small-scale production of solid cells
The alkaline metal lithium occurs in numerous countries. A distinction is made between extraction from salars and extraction from ore mining. Mining is considered the future-proof solution, both commercially and in terms of sustainability. Lithium extraction in salt lakes – predominantly in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia – is deemed difficult to calculate, since the evaporation process can be severely affected by rain, snow and natural contaminants in the material, and the impact on the environment (for example, on the groundwater level) can be potentially problematic. Lithium extracted from mining for the future-relevant intermediate product “lithium hydroxide”, on the other hand, is commercially more attractive (there is one less production step as compared to salar production), more stable to extract, easier to scale and generally more sustainable. The world market leader in ore-based production is Australia, a country with a stable political system, a high degree of transparency and ambitious environmental standards. The future Volkswagen supplier Ganfeng extracts material from several mines there. Furthermore, lithium extracted from ore is more suitable for batteries of the next generations. As part of its partnership with QuantumScape, Volkswagen aims to start small-scale production of solid cells as of 2025. “We are focusing on lithium from the mining industry, because this form of extraction means more stable prices, guaranteed capacities and transparent sustainability”, says Michael Bäcker.