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BMW Group Commissions Study on the Sustainable Mining of Lithium for Electric Vehicle Batteries

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【Summary】German automaker BMW announced on Wednesday that it commissioned a new study that includes a scientific analysis of water consumption in the Lithium extraction process for EV batteries. The study is being co-financed by German chemical company BASF SE with cooperation from the University of Alaska-Anchorage and University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The study is part of BMW’s efforts to achieve sustainable supply chains around the world.

Eric Walz    Dec 16, 2020 4:15 PM PT
BMW Group Commissions Study on the Sustainable Mining of Lithium for Electric Vehicle Batteries
Lithium pools in the Atacama desert in Northern Chile. The region has the most Lithium reserves in the world, a key raw material for EV batteries.

As the world's automakers ramp up plans to build more battery-powered vehicles, procuring the raw materials necessary to manufacture the batteries that will go into them is becoming a priority. Two of the primary raw materials for electric vehicle batteries are Lithium and Cobalt. Not only will automakers need to source enough Cobalt and Lithium for EV battery production, they are working to ensure that the raw materials are extracted sustainably.

German automaker BMW announced on Wednesday that it commissioned a new study that includes a scientific analysis of water consumption in the Lithium extraction process. The study is being co-financed by German chemical company BASF SE with cooperation from the University of Alaska-Anchorage and University of Massachusetts-Amherst. 

Researchers at the University of Alaska-Anchorage and University of Massachusetts-Amherst will investigate the impacts of Lithium extraction on the hydrologic environment in Latin America, where much of the world's Lithium deposits are found.

"Partnering with BMW on this ground-breaking Lithium sustainability project is extremely exciting for our research group and we are eager to develop the best tools to be used in assessing Lithium projects on a global scale," said Professor LeeAnn Munk, University of Alaska Anchorage, Department of Geological Sciences.

The BMW Group and BASF SE are already working together with other partners in the "Cobalt for Development" project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa.

The study is part of BMW's efforts to achieve sustainable supply chains around the world. The BMW Group is sourcing Lithium for its fifth-generation high-voltage batteries itself and making it available to its battery cell supply chains, the company said. 

BMW currently sources its Lithium from Australian mines that use the traditional hard rock mining to extract the material, but the region alone may not meet the rising demand for Lithium.

Lithium is the world's lightest metal. It's an essential raw material for producing batteries for electric vehicles, so BMW is working to ensure sustainably sourced supply in the future.

While much of the world's Cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, roughly two thirds of the world's Lithium reserves are found in South America. 

South America's "Lithium Triangle", which covers parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, holds more than half the world's supply of Lithium beneath its salt flats and large amounts of water are required to extract it from under the dried lake beds. 

To date, there has little scientific research conducted into how Lithium extraction impacts the region, according to BMW. The automaker intends to fill this gap in research with the new study it has commissioned.

How Lithium is Mined in Latin America

Unlike in Australia where its often extracted from rock, Lithium in South America is "water mined", which is similar to how sea salt is extracted from sea water. The Lithium extraction process uses approximately 500,000 gallons of water per metric ton of Lithium extracted. To put that in perspective, the Tesla Model S battery pack for example contains around 10 kilograms (22 lbs) of Lithium. 

To extract Lithium, miners drill a hole in vast salt flats, which are the remnants of dried prehistoric lake beds. deep underneath the salt layer is a brine which is rich in lithium. To extract the lithium from the brine, the water is pumped in underground, which forces the brine to the surface forming large pools. 

After several months of evaporation in the hot sun, the mineral rich brine leaves behind a dried mixture containing manganese, potassium, borax and Lithium salts which is then filtered and placed into a separate vast evaporation pool. 

The process is repeated for up to two years until the mixture is filtered enough that the Lithium carbonate can be extracted. This lithium carbonate is used in the cathode and the electrolyte of EV batteries.

At Chile's Salar de Atacama, which is the largest salt flat in the country, mining activities consumed 65 percent of the region's water, which is having a large impact on local farmers to the point that some communities have to source water elsewhere, according to a report released last month by the Institute for Energy Research (IER).

"Electromobility can only be sustainable when the raw materials are also extracted in the most sustainable manner possible. The new study we have commissioned is designed to create a scientific basis for identifying the best options for sourcing Lithium," said Patrick Hudde, head of Indirect Purchasing Raw Materials Management, BMW Group.

In addition to Lithium mining, the extraction of Cobalt for EV batteries is another concern for the world's automakers, although new battery chemistries have led to batteries that require less Cobalt.

The world's largest stores of Cobalt come from vast natural reserves in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Cobalt mining operations in Congo are associated with human rights abuses and labor laws are often non-existent. The mines in Congo produce around 60% of the world's Cobalt.

Mine workers, including children, are often forced to toil away in dangerous conditions, sometimes only with hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground with little oversight or safety protocols, according to evidence uncovered by the Washington Post in 2016. 

In addition, since Cobalt is a natural material found in only a few places on Earth, demand for it is also rising. This growing demand is driving up the price, which makes producing EV batteries costlier, which directly results in EVs costing more than combustion engine models.

This has led automakers like Tesla to take steps to reduce the use of Cobalt or eliminate the raw material entirely from its batteries.

Most automakers today are using the more common nickel-Cobalt-aluminum (NCA) or nickel-manganese-Cobalt (NMC) batteries for electric vehicles because of their higher energy density, which results in EVs with a longer range. Tesla currently produces these types of batteries at its Nevada gigafactory in a joint venture with Panasonic. 

In June, Tesla was granted approval to use Lithium-iron phosphate (LFP) batteries that contain no Cobalt for Model 3 vehicles built at the automaker's new Shanghai gigafactory. It would be the first time Tesla built a vehicle using LFP batteries instead of the typical Lithium-ion type. 

Although these new battery chemistries offer higher energy which offer a longer range for EVs, they still require Lithium, so demand for it will continue to grow. Sourcing it sustainability however, will require industry oversight and BMW's study is among the first steps.

The final results of the BMW comissioned study will be made available in the first half of 2022 and will include a five-tier rating system. This rating is designed to provide companies with better guidance on sustainable Lithium extraction in Latin America.

In the future, BMW Group says its will only enter into supply contracts with additional Lithium suppliers if the Lithium extraction process meets its high sustainability standards, and that the companies are certified by the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA). 

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