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Is there a resource constraint related to lithium ion batteries in cars?

Abstract

Purpose

The concept of electro mobility is gaining importance and has become more dynamic in recent years, particularly in developed economies. Besides a significant reduction of mobility-related CO2 emissions, electro mobility is also expected to minimize the current dependence on oil, while maximizing energy conversion efficiency. However, the associated shift in resource requirements towards so-called strategic metals gives reason to suspect that trade-offs could threaten the desired merits of e-mobility with regard to sustainability. This study aims to give a more comprehensive understanding of the challenges—including the issue of uncertainties—which the broad implementation of e-mobility could place on resource availability and especially on a sustainable management of special metals for the high voltage traction batteries forming the heart of the electric powertrain.

Methods

Future metal flows for three possible cathode materials containing the special metals lithium and cobalt are estimated in this paper by means of a Material Flow Analysis. Using two scenarios (dominant and pluralistic) projecting the annual demand for electric vehicles until 2050 and the free software STAN in order to perform the calculation steps to build up the model for the analysis, the MFA considers the resource input requirements based on annual vehicle registrations and the consequent energy requirements.

Results and discussion

The results indicate continuously rising lithium requirements with a wide variation in absolute terms depending on the scenario, which can be considered symptomatic for the uncertainty regarding the development of e-mobility. In the case of cobalt, the projected demand trajectories differ even more drastically between the two scenarios. In comparison to lithium though, for both scenarios cobalt requirements in absolute terms are much less than lithium requirements. With a view to currently known reserves, the cumulative demand for battery technology projected in the dominant scenario will consume 74–248 % (for two different cases) of the lithium reserves and 50 % of the cobalt reserves by 2050.

Conclusions

Despite significant differences between the examined scenarios, it becomes clear that e-mobility will be an increased driver for cobalt and particularly lithium demand in the future. Exact increases in demand for both metals are difficult to predict, especially due to the necessity of numerous assumptions, such as recycling rates, as well as data availability and quality. The results of this study imply a shift from managing primary resources, resource uses, and waste separately, towards managing materials, i.e., resource flows and their implications over the entire life cycle.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Here only referring to Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) and Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV).

  2. 2.

    As an explicit example. Note that lithium contents vary among different lithium sources.

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Acknowledgments

Part of the research was made possible through founding the research group “Cascade Use” at Oldenburg University, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (No: 01LN1310A).

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The author(s) declare that they have no competing interests

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Correspondence to Alexandra Pehlken.

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Responsible editor: Ming Chen

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Pehlken, A., Albach, S. & Vogt, T. Is there a resource constraint related to lithium ion batteries in cars?. Int J Life Cycle Assess 22, 40–53 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-015-0925-4

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Keywords

  • Electro mobility
  • Electric vehicle
  • Li-Ion battery
  • Material flow assessment
  • Sustainable resource management
  • Sustainability
  • Uncertainty