How environmentally friendly are batteries for electric vehicles? And where do the raw materials come from? A discussion with international experts at the BMW Welt in Munich provides important answers.
Since October last year, the BMW Group has held a regular Future Forum at which experts discuss sustainable visions of the future of mobility and the problems to be solved. One of the most important topics is the performance and sustainable production and disposal of batteries in electric vehicles. Participants in this specialist discussion were Dr. Matthias Buchert (Head of Resources & Mobility at the Öko-Institut), Michael Baumann, Managing Director at TWAICE (analysis software for batteries), Dr. Matthias Dohrn, Senior Vice President Global Precious & Base Metal Services at chemicals company BASF, Andreas Raith, Head of the Battery Technology Project and Sören Mohr, Head of Further Development at E-Drives - Stationary Battery Systems - Battery 2nd Life (both BMW Group).
Question: Will there be enough sustainably produced raw materials available for electric batteries in the future?
Matthias Buchert: We at the Öko-Institut assume that the number of battery-powered vehicles will increase significantly in the coming years. The demand for cobalt, lithium, nickel, manganese and graphite is therefore high. At the same time, however, the extraction of these raw materials is often associated with local environmental and societal problems. One example is the extraction of lithium from salt lakes in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, because it is associated with a further shortage of water in the region. And in cobalt mining, violations of human rights and labour and environmental standards still cannot be ruled out.
Matthias Dohrn: The situation is also problematic for nickel, which is becoming increasingly scarce. This raw material is sometimes mined in areas where it must be ensured, for example, that sustainable renaturation measures are introduced to protect the landscape.
Andreas Raith: The BMW Group is observing the mining situation very critically and is taking action: We will buy lithium and cobalt for our next generation of batteries ourselves. We are not only concerned about the possible shortage of availability, but also about long-term subsidy conditions. We are therefore probably the first carmaker in the world to have concluded direct contracts with proven sustainable mining companies. In addition, we will not be using cobalt from the Congo in the coming years because there is no guarantee of environmentally friendly and socially just mining. At the same time, we are working together with other companies to gradually improve the situation. Because we must not forget that hundreds of thousands of people and in some cases entire families live from being able to continue artisanal mining in the future.
Question: How sustainable is the production of batteries for electric vehicles?
Sören Mohr: The BMW Group has been using green electricity in the production of our BMW i vehicles for a long time – for example, hydroelectric power in carbon fibre production and wind power at our plant in Leipzig. And we also try to work with our suppliers in a way that is as sustainable as possible.
Michael Baumann: Regardless of the actual production process, the following applies: A battery is only sustainable if we can guarantee the highest possible quality. This is the only way we can achieve maximum service life and make electromobility as environmentally friendly as possible.
Andreas Raith: We have had very positive experiences with the BMW Group in the area of durability. Irrespective of whether the electric vehicles come from us or another vehicle manufacturer, we have observed that the batteries in almost all electrically powered cars last much longer than originally expected. This even means that they can generally be used for at least the entire service life of a vehicle and beyond.
Question: To what extent are electric batteries recyclable?
Matthias Dohrn: At BASF we have prepared analyses and forecasts for this purpose. The result is clear: We expect the recycling rate for the components of a battery to increase to 72 percent in two years and to 97 percent in five years.
Sören Mohr: Batteries that are removed from a BMW or MINI today usually have a second life: We continue to use them for stationary purposes, even when the vehicle has long since stopped driving on the road. In general, we can already recover a large part of the raw materials from the battery cells today. However, we do not expect to see an increase in the number of batteries in recycling until the next few years, because only then will the first larger margins actually have reached the end of their lives. And by then we will be able to recover the raw materials almost without exception.