Large vehicles, faster charging and more range: This trend is continuing for most car manufacturers. This should make it easier for motorists to make the step from combustion engines to electric drives. But bulky and expensive vehicles take up a lot of space in public spaces and move batteries weighing several hundred kilograms around with them, which significantly reduces efficiency. In a new study, the European think tank “Transport & Environment” (T&E), supported by a few dozen environmental and sustainability organizations, warns of an excessive demand for raw materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel or manganese. In order to reduce this hunger for raw materials in the intended broad electromobilization, they are promoting a trend reversal towards smaller electric vehicles.
“Germany wants to have 15 million fully electric vehicles on the road by 2030. This goes hand in hand with an enormous demand for battery metals,” says Friederike Piper, e-mobility officer at T&E Germany. In a world with limited resources, smaller electric cars are not only ecologically necessary, but also vital for the German automotive industry, because Chinese manufacturers are already in the starting blocks to meet the demand for small and affordable cars. Specifically, the study puts the raw material requirements in Europe for the decarbonization of the fleet by 2050 at around 200 times the consumption in 2022.
Adjustment screws for raw material requirements
But with smaller e-mobiles, fewer kilometers driven and faster development of alternative battery systems based on lithium iron phosphate or sodium instead of lithium, the demand for raw materials can be significantly reduced. The study focuses on the key elements lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese.
Switching to smaller vehicles with lighter batteries alone should be able to reduce demand by 19 to 27 percent. With new battery systems, a reduction of another four to 20 percent would be possible. If e-mobile drivers also switch to bicycles or public transport more frequently, the demand for raw materials could fall by another seven to nine percent.
T&E designed three different scenarios to calculate the raw material needs of lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese. “Business as usual” means current industry trends and developments in battery size and chemistry, as well as personal car use. The “Accelerated Innovation and Reduced Mileage” scenario assumes a significant shift to smaller batteries, faster adoption of battery chemistries with less critical metals (e.g., lithium batteries without cobalt or nickel (LFP) or sodium-ion batteries) and fewer kilometers driven by car. The third scenario, “Aggressive Innovation and Less Car Miles,” pushes these assumptions even further, leading to more radical changes. According to the study, this results in savings in lithium requirements of 57 percent compared to the “business as usual” scenario, 59 percent can be reduced in nickel requirements, and 56 and 45 percent for cobalt and manganese, respectively.
(Image: T&E Analysis)
“We should use an EU efficiency standard to oblige car manufacturers to finally offer more resource-efficient fully electric vehicles that are also more affordable than today’s oversized SUVs,” demands Piper. The German automotive industry would also benefit from such a change, which otherwise leaves this market to other suppliers from abroad. However, this demand for stronger regulation and specifications from the legislator will most likely meet with criticism. As was the case with the discussion about the end of combustion vehicles, the advocates of state regulation and the supporters of self-regulation by market forces will face each other.
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