Achieving more with less - for Daimler, this is the strategy of choice to conserve precious raw materials. This applies especially to the area of electric mobility.
The global economy is growing dynamically. If this trend continues unchanged in the future, global consumption of resources will more than double by 2050, with serious effects on the climate and the environment. This is forecast by the recently issued report of the International Resource Panel of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Nonetheless, the Panel is confident that resource efficiency can still be significantly improved in many regions, as detailed in the report. If we succeed in exploiting this potential, the need for resources could ideally even decrease slightly despite growing economic output.
Daimler has invested in resource-efficient technologies and production processes for years. Around seven million metric tons of raw materials are used every year to produce our cars and commercial vehicles. That makes it all the more important to already optimize, during early stages of development, our need for raw materials that are available only in limited amounts or can harm society and the environment. By using lightweight construction materials in our vehicles, we have successfully reversed the trend toward increased weight. In direct comparisons, today’s models are up to 100 kilograms lighter than previous model generations. In our production plants we employ innovative processes in order to use valuable materials as sparingly as possible. The remanufacturing of components and the use of recycled materials also help Daimler to ensure that today on average about a third of the materials that are used to build a car come from secondary sources.
The challenge of electric mobility
The expansion of electric mobility is posing new challenges to the automotive industry today. That’s because many high-quality materials are used in the drive system, battery, and power electronics of an electric car.
To produce an electric car, we need more and different starting materials. This is similar to converting a range of conventional power plants to the production of renewable energy. But the crucial factor is that the additional materials and energy that we need to produce electric cars are more than compensated for during the period when the vehicle is used - especially if the vehicle uses electricity that is generated from renewable sources and the recycling circuits are completed at the end of the vehicle’s useful life. If that is the case, the electric car’s operation in fact produces no emissions and is extremely resource-efficient.
Raw materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, platinum, and rare earths are available today in sufficient amounts to enable the transition to climate-friendly electric mobility. However, we will be able to safeguard the supply of these materials only if they are extracted in acceptable amounts in ways that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible. We need to deal with these precious raw materials prudently and economically so that we can avoid bottlenecks, rising prices or other unforeseen developments.
A close look at risks and resources
For a number of years now, Daimler has focused intensely on the question of the possible risks posed by the raw materials that are needed for electric mobility and how these risks can be assessed. In order to find answers, we conducted the ESSENZ research project together with partners from industry and science. The result has been a new holistic approach that our engineers are already using in the early phases of vehicle development. Their risk assessments in line with the ESSENZ approach show them how critical the use of a certain raw material is today or can become in the future.
The ESSENZ analysis focuses on three dimensions. First, the engineers investigate the geological availability of the respective raw material. How plentiful and how accessible are the total existing reserves? Secondly, the team takes socioeconomic factors into account. For example, is a given raw material concentrated in certain countries or only a few extracting companies? Would it be difficult to open new mines? Thirdly, social and societal risks are examined. To what extent is the extraction connected with social or environmental risks? And if so, how can these risks be
reduced? These are questions that Daimler also addresses in other areas. Our approach to minimize risks to the observance of human rights also applies to our suppliers and their contractors.
With the help of the ESSENZ analysis, the vehicle development engineers gain a clear picture of the potential environmental, economic, and social risks that are connected with the use of a given raw material. In this way they can assess how critical different raw materials in cars are and derive targeted options for action. The first question in this process is always “How can we use the raw materials in question even more efficiently?”
Greater efficiency, 40 percent better fuel economy
Achieving more with less — this is Daimler’s preferred method of addressing the risks connected with scarce resources. In our new sustainability strategy, we have therefore defined a key performance indicator (KPI) for this area. The goal: Between now and 2030, we want to reduce our use of primary resources in the areas of drivetrain and battery technology by 40 percent compared to today’s electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
The main factor that will help us reach this objective is the progress being made in lithium-ion battery technology. It will further increase energy density, so that more energy can be stored without increasing the battery volume. In addition, the batteries will become significantly lighter. That will have a positive effect on handling and fuel economy. Finally, the material composition of lithium-ion batteries will change. The combination of equal parts of nickel, manganese, and cobalt that is normally used today will soon be a thing of the past, because the cobalt will be largely replaced by nickel. Starting in 2025, the post-lithium-ion technologies, which eliminate nickel and cobalt entirely, will be so reliable that they can be installed in vehicles. In parallel, all of our development efforts aim at achieving the longest possible period of use, so that the materials in question can be utilized as efficiently as possible.
A battery’s many lives
Other successful paths to greater resource efficiency include recycling and remanufacturing. Recycling enables us to recover materials such as nickel, cobalt, and copper in a way that maintains their high quality. As a result, we can significantly reduce the environmental effects of future battery systems. And in the remanufacturing process our specialists repair or overhaul the batteries for further use.
Klaus Ruhland is looking at the future with optimism. “These storage facilities help to stabilize the local electrical grid,” he says. “But even more important is the fact that they extend the useful life of the batteries, so that their valuable components can be optimally utilized. I am convinced that this will help us to further improve the environmental performance of electric mobility.”