Lithium: the central disadvantage of German e-cars could soon disappear


The ecological balance of battery production is seen as the downside of e-cars – especially since the publication of the so-called Sweden study in 2017. At that time, scientists at the Swedish environmental research institute IVL found that e-cars are much more harmful to the climate than previously assumed. This is because the production of the batteries would produce an average of 150 to 200 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilowatt hour of battery capacity.

Almost two years later, the scientists revised their study. Up to 200 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents turned into 61 to a maximum of 106 kilograms. Mainly responsible for the decline are battery factories, which are now more busy, explained Erik Emilsson, one of the researchers in a press release. That makes the production of individual electric car batteries more efficient.

The carbon footprint of an electric car is reduced by transport routes

But there is still another problem: The light metal lithium, which is required for the manufacture of batteries, usually has to travel a long way before it arrives in Germany. According to the German Raw Materials Agency, it was Australia and Chile that supplied almost three quarters of the world’s lithium production in 2016 alone. There are thousands of kilometers between the two countries and Germany.

The carbon footprint deteriorates even before production has even started – especially since lithium normally takes a detour via China to be transported to Germany as a lithium-ion battery.

But that could change soon. On the one hand, because the European Union wants to set up its own battery production. And on the other hand, because lithium could soon be produced on a large scale in Europe itself. In any case, test facilities for the extraction of lithium from geothermal deep water are being built along the Upper Rhine Graben in Bruchsal and Insheim, as reported by several German media. The “Frankfurter Allgemeine” even writes about the “Treasure on the Upper Rhine”. A number of energy companies are said to be involved, including the Baden-Württemberg group EnBW.

The funding process, described by the Federal Geothermal Association, is complex. Lithium-rich, hot alkalis are pumped from the earth’s interior to the surface from a geothermal reservoir. The heat is extracted from the lye to generate electricity and heat. Then lithium can also be obtained. The decisive question will be whether the process is economical.

“Lithium production in Germany and Europe has a future”

In any case, lithium seems to be abundant in the Upper Rhine Rift. (You can find out more here.) Experts speak of one of the largest lithium deposits in the world. In an interview with, Martin Wedig, Managing Director of the Association for Raw Materials and Mining, doubts whether it will be enough to make lithium imports superfluous. “The occurrence in Germany alone is not sufficient for a European supply. It is very likely that the sources will have to be diversified and therefore new ones will have to be opened up.

“Lithium production in Germany and Europe has a future,” explains Wedig, “but only under certain conditions.” Because the process is not yet fully developed. To produce in South America is significantly cheaper than in Germany: “In this country, higher standards apply, also with regard to safety and social security.”

This is likely to have negative consequences for consumers – and they could also reduce the acceptance of e-cars: For example, the higher costs caused by domestic production would be priced into e-cars. “Buyers of e-cars may then have to pay 1,000 euros more. The reason for this – the high raw material prices – is difficult to explain. “

Crucial question: will customers accept more expensive e-cars if necessary?

There is one more catch to the matter. “Investors are not in line for lithium production in Germany,” explains Wedig. “Battery cell production in Germany is not yet mature. In addition, battery cells are subject to strong development dynamics, so that the use of raw materials for them can change again in a few years. “

Ultimately, manufacturers would have to decide whether to accept higher costs or a poorer CO2 balance. Politicians have an obligation to resolve this conflict, Wedig lets through – either through mechanisms that artificially increase the price of lithium transport from South America, for example with tariffs.

The state can vouch for risky investments abroad in order to secure the supply of raw materials in Germany. This also creates the opportunity to work in an environmentally friendly manner. Last but not least, the public pressure must be great enough to produce locally. If lithium is to be mined in Europe in 2025, he thinks it will be a success.

This article was published by in June 2020. It has now been reviewed and updated.

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