In the near term, lithium and cobalt will be decisive for the future mobility. Or not? We address core issues from the current discussion about lithium-ion batteries – and explain the background.
There are several ways to reduce traffic CO₂ emissions. Whatever path is chosen, it needs to get us to where we want to go quickly: because on January 1, 2020 the EU brought in new laws restricting emissions to max. 95 grams CO₂ per kilometer for cars and 147 grams for vans. Manufacturers who fail to reduce the average figures for their new-vehicle fleets will face heavy penalties. Yet the necessary switch to alternative drive systems is still not happening quickly enough, according to the VDA (German Automotive Industry Association), which demands: It’s not just the industry but also politicians who have an obligation to create frameworks and market incentives¹ .
New average limits have been in force EU-wide since January 1, 2020: 95 grams of CO₂ per kilometer for cars and 147 grams of CO₂ per kilometer for light-duty commercial vehicles; however, rather than being the same for all manufacturers, the regulations depend on the (average) weight of the manufacturers' fleets. In 2019, the EU Parliament agreed on more stringent policies for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of cars and light-duty commercial vehicles by 2030. According to these new rules, cars need to reduce their CO₂ emissions by 37.5 percent and vans by 31 percent in comparison to 2021. Both vehicle categories must reduce their emissions by 15 percent until 2025. Following a transition period, any manufacturer missing these targets will face penalties from 2023 onward.²
2020: the year of electric mobility
The stars of the moment: electric powertrains. Unlike diesel and gasoline engines, they emit neither carbon dioxide nor nitrogen oxide during operation. And that's another reason for many manufacturers to bring new electric models to market in 2020. In addition to this, the German government increased funding for the market ramp-up of electric mobility in February:³ Therefore, the expansion of publicly accessible charging points should accelerate and subsidies for electric vehicles should increase.
But electric cars have also faced criticism⁴ because electric batteries contain large amounts of valuable resources, especially metals such as lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt. So how solid is the argument that, due to their high consumption of resources during production, electric cars are ultimately not more ecofriendly than their combustion-engine counterparts at all – especially since they are not yet all powered by 'green' electricity?⁵ Mercedes-Benz makes it clear: the life cycle assessments (LCA) for Mercedes-Benz EQ models and plug-in hybrids show that, although an electric vehicle has a larger CO₂ footprint during production, this is more than offset over the course of the vehicle's useful life. When it comes to CO₂, it's the overall LCA that counts. And for this instance the all-electric Mercedes-Benz EQC scores points during its useful life in particular: Assuming an overall useful life of 200,000 km, it beats its combustion-engine counterpart running on regular fuel by over 40 percent. When charged with renewable energy, the EQC undercuts the combustion-engine vehicle by almost 70 percent over the course of its life cycle (read more).
Hot topic: resources
The growing market for electric mobility is leading to a growing demand for lithium, among other resources. The 'white gold' occurs on several continents around the world – in low-rainfall regions of Latin America, for instance. Mining in these dry areas fuels the conflict between environmentalists, the local population, and mine operators, since lithium mining requires large quantities of water. Whether the water scarcity in these regions is directly linked to mining, however, is still a moot point.⁶ Irrespective of this, companies have to ask themselves how responsible and sustainable their resource supply chains are. Since some of the lithium in the supply chains for Daimler vehicles comes from South America, Daimler talks to its direct suppliers and subsuppliers about the ecological consequences of lithium extraction and the impact on the local population.
Cobalt is another focus of criticism, since the mining of this metal has been linked to human rights abuses. More than 60 percent of the world's cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) - a country beset with political instability and humanitarian crises.
How can car manufacturers contribute to improvements?
There are several possible approaches, one of which is the creation of greater transparency along the supply chain. One of the ways Daimler tackles this is by adopting the Human Rights Respect System - an approach designed to identify and minimize human rights abuses in the supply chain. Daimler has commissioned an external audit company to monitor the cobalt supply chains of the battery cell suppliers based on OECD standards.
In addition to this, Daimler has entered into a project collaboration with the "Bon Pasteur" organization to improve the situation of people in the Kolwezi mining region of the DRC by running education schemes. The target is to improve living conditions for more than 19,000 people by 2022. Daimler is providing more than one million euros of funding for this initiative.
Farewell to hydrogen?
But what about alternatives? With its unilateral promotion of electric mobility – as the VDI (Association of German Engineers) believes to be the case⁸ – does Germany run the risk of hindering the development of other, perhaps even better drive concepts?⁹ Hydrogen is one technology on which hopes are often pinned:¹⁰ a fuel cell enables the universe's most abundant chemical element to be converted into electrical drive energy with zero emissions. And this technology does not need heavy batteries to achieve high operating ranges. Furthermore, it is far quicker for motorists to refuel with 'green' hydrogen than with electricity.
But there is another side to the coin here, too: the production of hydrogen requires a huge amount of electricity and is associated with high conversion losses. This particular energy source is therefore relatively expensive: too expensive to be economical for cars in the near future. It is a different story for commercial vehicles. Since hydrogen is particularly appealing to customers faced with demanding transport tasks, such as difficult-to-plan routes and especially heavy freight. Daimler Trucks & Buses aims to put mass-produced hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road in the second half of this decade. The FUSO brand is already testing the fuel-cell technology options for different commercial vehicles with the "Vision F-Cell" prototype. Daimler Truck AG likewise aims to use the fuel cell in the bus segment from 2022 – to extend the operating range of the eCitaro battery-electric urban bus.
This means that there is a market, but most of the potential currently lies in the freight-transport domain. What you need to know: total operating costs for electric drives will be far higher than those for diesel trucks and buses in the foreseeable future. Direct government intervention is therefore necessary to make CO₂-neutral commercial vehicles competitive and thus improve the economic viability of electric drives for customers. The infrastructure must fit, too.
The same applies to synthetic fuels - the successors to biodiesel, which is obtained from plants. These e-fuels, produced with renewably generated hydrogen, are highly compatible with modern diesel and gasoline engines. Having said that, it takes about 20 kilowatt hours of electricity to generate¹¹ one liter of this fuel. This means that, compared with an electric vehicle that consumes between10 and 20 kilowatt hours per hundred kilometers, even the most economical diesel cars fare badly. Nevertheless, organizations such as the DECHEMA¹² believe that e-fuels will reduce CO₂ emissions, especially in global freight transport with trucks.
What next? What can we expect in the near future?