By on February 12, 2020

With Europe increasingly fixated on regulating vehicular emissions, German automakers are throwing themselves into electrification like ’90s moms did with Beanie Babies. As with those moms, the investment has yet to pay off. Still, that hasn’t encouraged anyone to change course. Every player understood from the outset that transitioning to EVs was bound to be costly and, with increasingly stringent regulations proposed every month, there aren’t many alternatives.

Volkswagen placed its very existence on electrification after Dieselgate, quickly running into problems with battery suppliers. And while VW claims it’s solved the issue for the next few years, it isn’t out of the woods yet. VW and Daimler have reportedly commissioned a study into sustainable lithium mining in Chile, but it’s already receiving pushback from environmental groups concerned about the delicate nature of the region’s Atacama salt flat — where the metal is found in abundance. 

Unlike other locations, where lithium is mined from rock, Atacama miners extract the element from brine pools. Chilean locals and activist groups are concerned that the ultra-dry desert’s water table could be damaged, with the risk increasing as EVs become commonplace. More mining is guaranteed to disrupt the area’s rather fragile and unique ecosystem, which is heavily dependent upon underground springs to support life.

Reuters reports that Volkswagen visited Atacama in January, foreshadowing new efforts to secure the foundation of its battery supply chain. Daimler may have popped in to check out the scene as well, but declined to comment on the matter.

From Reuters:

Lobbying records show a team from German development agency GIZ and the public-private Fundacion Chile met with Cristóbal De La Maza, chief of top Chilean environmental regulator SMA, early this year to formally present plans for the “feasibility study.”

“This project is driven by the Volkswagen and Daimler companies,” the filings read. “The growing importance of batteries has made the sustainability of lithium a key priority for these companies.”

While electrification has its merits, there are still legitimate questions that must be answered about battery waste and mining practices. A lot of the materials necessary for battery production come from a handful of areas, obtained by low-wage employees (sometimes children, in the case of cobalt) in regions enacting few environmental or occupational safeguards. But what are automakers to do when governments mandate zero emissions, with EVs looking like the only answer?

While the irony of environmentalists standing in the way of electric vehicle production isn’t lost on us, this just seems sad. Unless electric vehicles die on the vine, there’ll soon be a colossal surge in battery related mining. There has to be. The increased production of mobile devices has already mashed down the accelerator. EVs will deliver a giant shot of nitrous, bringing new risks to the table in the quest for automotive superiority. How is any of this going to work if one green solution just sweeps new environmental hazards under someone else’s rug?

[Image: Ksenia Ragozina/Shutterstock]

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37 Comments on “German Automakers Look to South America for Keystone Lithium Supply...”


  • avatar
    pwrwrench

    “How is any of this going to work if one green solution just sweeps new environmental hazards under someone else’s rug?”

    It’s been like that many times. In the 1970s it was time to stop putting lead into gasoline. The replacement formulae proved similarly troublesome. And don’t get me started about MTBE. Then came ethanol.
    There is also “recycling”, which often ends up meaning dumping unwanted stuff somewhere else because very little can be reused. Or the process to recover whatever is too costly and polluting.
    Also the so called 3rd World has been a source of raw materials for Northern countries for centuries. Wars have been fought over this and probably will be again.

    • 0 avatar
      Vega

      Still, lead was brutally toxic and severely impaired public health. Manufacturers switching to valve stems that did not need it anymore enabled suppliers to do away not only with lead, but also its replacements.

      • 0 avatar
        pwrwrench

        It was not only valve stems and seats that had problems. The main question was/is octane. It is possible to make high octane, detonation resistant, fuel without lead, manganese or similar additives, but you get less fuel from a given amount of oil.
        It was mainly re-designing engines (combustion chambers) and FI/ignition management that allowed current “unleaded” fuel to work.
        Put today’s gasoline in an early 1970s, unmodified, vehicle and it will barely run and probably not for long.

        • 0 avatar
          Vega

          I’ve put it in my 66 beetle for years, without any problems. I just have to avoid ethanol as it tends to eat up old style fuel lines. Not a fair comparison I know, as it only required 87 octane (RON) in the first place ;)

        • 0 avatar
          golden2husky

          …Put today’s gasoline in an early 1970s, unmodified, vehicle and it will barely run and probably not for long…

          That was done in the early 1970s…Shell had a lead free fuel called “Shell of the Future”…it really only worked in engines with lower compression ratios. The cars ran but under heavy acceleration, preiginition was pretty bad.

          • 0 avatar
            highdesertcat

            golden2husky, at that point the automakers realized they had to counter the ping and knocking and added detonation sensors and knock monitors to the variable ignition timing.

        • 0 avatar
          JimZ

          “Put today’s gasoline in an early 1970s, unmodified, vehicle and it will barely run and probably not for long.”

          horses**t.

          I didn’t think in 2020 I’d still see someone p*ssing and moaning about getting rid of leaded gas.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      I, for one, am glad that fuel is no longer leaded.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      Want early ’90s crime rates back? Bring leaded gas back.

      None of the issues with taking lead out were remotely as serious as the problems lead created.

      We will eventually realize that the same is true of a transition to electric cars, especially once volume is high enough that battery recycling is in full swing.

  • avatar
    thelaine

    The examples of supposed virtuous intentions creating malign consequences through mandated “green” energy are endless. Just today, I noticed an article which addresses this issue. It is one of an endless number.

    Unfortunately, the policymakers do not care. There is a lot of graft involved. So much for virtue.

    “Storing a week’s worth of power for periods when the sun is not shining or the wind isn’t blowing would require some 2 billion half-ton Tesla car battery packs. Meeting these needs would require a massive expansion of mining for lithium, cobalt, and other substances in the United States or in Asia, Africa, and South America. Operations in the latter countries involve extensive child labor, create environmental disasters, and even lead to premature death.”

    https://thefederalist.com/2020/02/12/why-the-green-new-deal-would-destroy-the-environment/

    I always recommend the excellent book https://www.amazon.com/Power-Hungry-Myths-Energy-Future/dp/1586489534 for people who do not understand energy.

  • avatar
    Mnemic

    Everyone is having battery supply issues, serious, battery supply issues.

  • avatar
    Fleuger99

    Why has fuel cell cars been so overshadowed by EV cars? Fuel cell has almost the same range as a combustion engine car and fueling up takes only a few minutes more than a combustion engine vehicle, significantly more practical than recharging an EV. I know both Honda and Toyota offer a fuel cell car for lease but only in California. It needs to be expanded. I’d buy a fuel cell car before an EV.

    The fuel cell car also doesn’t have all the environmental impacts described in this article.

    • 0 avatar
      jack4x

      Because hydrogen is difficult to store and transport.

      • 0 avatar
        dukeisduke

        And very expensive to produce (at least currently).

        • 0 avatar
          dont.fit.in.cars

          It’s worse….again mathematics.

          “ Hydrogen is 3.2 times less energy dense than natural gas and 2700 times less energy dense than gasoline.”

          It’s why stars are large.

          Alternative energy is nothing more than an engineering exercise. Never before in human history has so much hype produced so little BTU’s while achieving engineering excellence.

          • 0 avatar
            rpn453

            Fortunately, we still have a lot of oil resources to fund and power the development and maintenance of all this alternative energy!

            Hopefully the technology will continue to advance and the investments will eventually pay off. We can’t do what we’re doing forever and almost nobody is willing to change their lifestyle just because they think it’s killing the planet. They simply demand that technology save them from the consequences of gluttony.

          • 0 avatar
            golden2husky

            Well, there are things that work against other traditional fuels, too. 3/4 of all that energy in gasoline is thrown away due to inefficient combustion and waste heat. So a battery can have 1/4 of the energy of gas and produce equivalent range. Of course the need to warm the interiors of the vehicles in the winter cost range whereas it comes “free” with an ICE vehicle.

            The reality is that all energy sources have advantages and drawbacks. The heater issue is meaningless in Florida but quite possibly a deal-killer in Maine. Which is why there is no one best answer. Frankly, to me, the best of both worlds are hybrid drivetrains. I have coaxed 72 MPG out a last-generation Prius without much effort.

    • 0 avatar
      DedBull

      Current hydrogen production is by steam reforming of natural gas, so your fuel cell vehicle is still powered by fossil fuels. I am unsure as to what elements are required to make a fuel cell work efficiently, is it a trade off of one metal for another? Do fuel cell vehicles still contain batteries?

      On a positive side,with Linde and Maximator making progress with ionic compressors, the compression of H2 is getting more practical.

    • 0 avatar
      Hummer

      The great thing about hydrogen, is while new tech uses fuel cells to transform the energy to electricity in order to move the vehicle forward, traditional ICE can also be converted to run on hydrogen gas.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      For an element that is literally the most abundant substance in the Universe, it sure is difficult to get at it in it’s pure form on Earth.

      It is difficult to store and Storage failures are catastrophic I believe it currently takes more energy to make the Hydrogen than you get from it.

      I think battery tech is currently a better compromise.

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        “For an element that is literally the most abundant substance in the Universe, it sure is difficult to get at it in it’s pure form on Earth.”

        unfortunately it really, really likes being part of larger molecules.

  • avatar
    dont.fit.in.cars

    Do the math.

    “In an entire year, all the existing lithium battery factories in the world combined manufacture only enough capacity to store 100 billion Watt-hours (Wh) of electricity. But the USA alone uses 100 times this capacity: more than 10,000 billion Wh per day. Worldwide, humanity uses over 50,000 billion Wh daily.

    Replacing the gasoline in the tanks of 1.4 billion vehicles worldwide with electric power would require another 100 billion Watt-hours. That brings total global demand to well over 125,000 billion Wh of storage. That means it would take 1,250 years of production from every existing lithium battery factory worldwide to meet this combined demand. Or we would have to build 1,250 times more factories. Or we could build batteries that are 10 to100 times more powerful and efficient than what we have today.”

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    “…the delicate nature of the region’s Atacama salt flat — where the metal is found in abundance.”

    Well, for now anyway.

  • avatar
    dont.fit.in.cars

    The stab in the heart of alternative energy is it’s inability to create multiple revenue streams per energy used.

    A barrel of oil creates gasoline oils and lubricants. Crack natural gas you get polyethylene and C02.

    Wind and solar only offer electricity when operating and enormous amounts of conversion (both mechanical and electrical) are required to get a kilowatt. Batteries are the worst conversions and least effective way to store and produce electricity.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      An interesting point about refining is that a barrel of oil produces a host of products, including gasoline. In the old days, that gasoline was a waste product. If we are really successful in replacing ICE cars with electrics, what happens to all the gasoline “byproduct” of making diesel and heating oil?

    • 0 avatar
      cprescott

      Unfortunately fossil fuels don’t have potential abilities – a stationary solar array (or one designed to follow the sun) will turn one form of energy into another and store it into batteries for use when there is no sun. Once you run out of a supply of fossil fuel, you have to reorder it at your expense. The alternative energy sources will take care of that for you.

  • avatar
    cprescott

    I believe the other significant source of lithium is in China and we all know how serious they are about respecting the environment.

  • avatar
    cprescott

    I am no greenie. My only concern about green is if it saves me money or allows me to operate my life more efficiently.

    I totally appreciate the value of fossil fuels used for whatever purpose to enhance our lives; I want that fuel to be used as efficiently and as cleanly as possible. I see no evil there at all.

    I do, however, value having other options that would allow us to use less fossil fuels where possible and renewables are valuable in that end. Battery technology is moving quickly to being available for mass use and to allow us to harvest the sun or wind and to store it on days where it is needed without sun or wind.

    I see alternatives and fossil fuels living in a dynamic arena where we get the best of all options and one will offset the weakness of the other; to me it makes no sense now to build any building without adding solar; but I am so against any government mandate or tax credits to force compliance with that. To me it makes economic sense over the mid to long term to have electrical demand reduced at the powerplant level. And with self-sufficiency in electricity at each building, if and when there is a grid attack, unless it is an EMP burst, there will be a continuity in our way of life until the grid is fixed.

    Electric cars are great with their immediate torque, but they lack the appeal of the sound of a V-8 engine in a class automobile. And one way to have one’s cake and eat it to would be to take a classic car with a bad engine and to convert to electric.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      cprescott BRAVO!

      Well written and it accurately reflects the sentiments of many car aficionados.

      Even I, yes even I, can accept the viability of a BEV Rivian RT1 pickup truck to run around the El Paso, TX, area, but it would not be my primary vehicle, maybe my third vehicle after a Sequoia and Lexus LS.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    “Electric cars are great with their immediate torque, but they lack the appeal of the sound of a V-8 engine in a class automobile.”

    Or with a capable digital signal processor whose signal is amplified by a powerful class-D amplifier, driving some rare-earth loudspeakers, the sound AND vibration of such an engine, any engine, could be re-created.

    Big block American V8? Option 1. Ferrari 12? Option 2. Classic BMW inline 6? Got it, option 3.

    Of course, I am only joking…….But someone may even start a Kickstarter program to develop such a product.

  • avatar
    TimK

    Spent some time on the Chilean altiplano in 2013. Even back then, there were lots of Chinese roaming about. There is a channel on local TV with a Chinese news anchor speaking Spanish. Weird stuff in a gorgeous land, awesome landscapes everywhere you look. I think the Krauts may be a day late and a Euro short in sewing up deals for Lithium.

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