Critical raw materials: battery production needs to become more sustainable

August 8, 2022 – Renewable energies are finally being expanded faster. Speed, skilled workers and raw materials are required. All three are potentially few and the last two in particular may be hard to come by in the future. It is already clear that a raw materials transformation is needed to relieve the environment and climate, ensure Europe’s energy transition and achieve the greatest possible independence in the energy sector.

Germany and Europe are dependent on the global raw materials market

What exactly is a critical raw material is not clearly defined. Since 2011, the EU has been developing an inventory of critical raw materials and their sources of supply to the European market. Germany and the EU import most of their critical raw materials from non-European countries. Individual countries often have a monopoly on certain raw materials.

This can quickly become a problem as supply difficulties for individual exporters can paralyze entire supply chains. Late last year, the European Parliament called on the Commission to reduce dependence in the raw materials sector. This applies in particular to the critical raw materials needed to implement the European Green Deal and renewable energies.

Data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) presented statistics on the demand for raw materials for the climate-friendly transformation of the economy last year. The IEA estimates that the share of energy technologies in total demand will increase to more than 40 percent for copper and rare earth metals, 60-70 percent for nickel and cobalt, and almost 90 percent for lithium over the next two decades. Electric vehicles and batteries already consume the most lithium today, and by 2040 they will become the largest nickel consumer.

Batteries for changing the direction of movement

The drivers are primarily digital technology, the expansion of renewable energy sources and the change of traffic. According to EU calculations, by 2030 there will be around 30 million electric vehicles on the roads of European countries. By 2030, global demand for batteries could increase by about 14 times. The EU assumes that around 17 percent. of which it will constitute an intra-European movement.

According to the European Commission, up to 18 times more lithium and 5 times more cobalt will be needed in the EU by 2030. Lithium is an essential component of lithium-ion batteries and therefore the most popular form of energy storage. This makes light metal one of the most important raw materials in the energy transformation. According to the German Raw Materials Agency (DERA), the e-mobility battery sector will account for around 90 percent of global lithium demand in 2030.

“Lithium primary production is an oligopoly and supply is currently determined by two countries. Australia and Chile accounted for almost 75 percent of global mining production in 2020, explains Michael Schmidt of the German Mineral Resource Agency. “Even if all currently planned and under construction projects are delivered on schedule and we assume a moderate increase in demand, we will not have enough lithium to meet the expected global demand in 2030.”

Promote and reuse

Secondary raw materials may soon play a key role in meeting increasing demand. Among other things, the EU is planning a new regulation on batteries, according to which a minimum share of recycled cobalt, lead, lithium and nickel in batteries should be specified.

Currently, the vast majority of lithium comes from primary production, which has a significant impact on the environment and society. In the resolution, the European Parliament calls for the creation of a national recycling industry for critical raw materials and for the expansion of primary financing in the EU. Secondary raw materials could thus contribute to the independence of the EU in raw materials matters, at least reducing environmental and human rights violations in mining and strengthening the national economy.

However, Schmidt assumes that by 2030 recycling will only be able to cover about 3 to 10 percent of European demand. Agrees with the opening-up of the EU that the EU’s raw material resources should be promoted in order to reduce Europe’s dependence on imports.

Promote mining in the EU

However, mining projects often face resistance in the EU. It was not until the beginning of the year that a civil movement stopped a large-scale lithium mining project in Serbia. As a result of test drilling, the environment was significantly contaminated.

The sustainable promotion of raw materials for the production of batteries is far from utopian. However, funding must be assessed individually on site, safety concepts must be developed and environmental standards must be respected. jb

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