German Automakers Look to South America for Keystone Lithium Supply

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
german automakers look to south america for keystone lithium supply

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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2 of 38 comments
  • Schmitt trigger Schmitt trigger on Feb 12, 2020

    "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.

  • TimK TimK on Feb 12, 2020

    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.

  • Fred I don't know about those big screens. Is there a way to minimize the display, so it's not so distracting? Especially at night the glow doesn't make it easy for me.
  • Arthur Dailey Toronto Blue Jays' games are only available on AM radio. As I am 'on the road' quite often when the Jays play that is my only option for listening to the game. So an AM radio is something of a 'must have' for me.
  • JMII My brother tracked one of these for several years... it will embarrass other sports cars. He sold it to someone who still rips it around on track days. Given my previous VW experience I wouldn't touch it but these are surprising quick and handle well for hatchback credit going to a decent AWD system. $16k seems crazy, but Rs aren't that common and this one appears to be in great condition and seems well sorted.
  • Arthur Dailey I meant the grille and the profile along the passenger area. Look closely and it is reminiscent of the Journey.
  • Daniel 16500 pesos