One of the complaints about electric vehicles is the possibility that sourcing the raw materials will cause grave ecological or societal harm. For example rare earth minerals are sometimes produced in locations with active resource wars. And of course it’s not unknown for industrial processes to have negative side effects. To that end, BMW today announced it is funding research into sustainable lithium production, focusing specifically on lithium resources in South America.
According to BMW, 2/3rds of the worlds lithium resources are in South America. What they mean by that is the worlds easily recoverable lithium, since the element lithium is widely spread around the planet.
The research goal is to reduce the environmental impact of lithium production. BMW’s stance is that “industry should focus a lot more on making sure that we don’t burn down our planet while trying to save it.” Any industrial process that causes environmental harm, while claiming to produce environmental benefit, well, the word “hypocritical” comes to mind.
It’s important to remember that for most of BMW’s history, like almost every other car maker, the company gleefully enjoyed the benefits of fuels made from fossil crude oil resources. Fossil fuel production is the poster child for industrial processes that have hugely negative side effects. While it’s excellent that BMW is taking this stance, they have a lot of karma to make up for.
Getting back to the research, it will be conducted by the University of Alaska-Anchorage and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The specific goal is to “find out exactly what the impact of lithium extraction on the hydrologic environment in Latina America is.”
BMW also addressing rare earth mineral and cobalt production
The announcement follows a pair of related announcements from BMW. In the first, BMW promised to no longer use rare earth minerals in their drive trains. In the second, BMW promised to source cobalt from reliable companies.
The problem with rare earth minerals isn’t the scarcity, but the processing required to make them useful. According to BMW:
Mining rare earths involves a certain degree of toxicity and that’s definitely not ‘eco-friendly’, especially in the absence of some clear rules set up to prevent abuse. Some mining and separation processes involve chemicals that produce toxic wastewater. All of these dangerous byproducts require scrupulous storage and disposal and in some cases that’s not being done right.
Avoiding the use of rare earth materials avoids adding negative environmental impacts to those living near production facilities. That then avoids the risk of naysayers denigrating electric cars.
As for Cobalt, the BMW Group had announced a deal to source “ethically responsible” cobalt from Managem Corp in Morocco. The order will take care of 20% of BMW’s cobalt needs, with the rest coming from Australia. The cobalt goes into battery pack production, and will be supplied directly to BMW’s partners CATL and Samsung SDI.
- (August 1, 2019) BMW Electric Cars Will Be Free of Rare Earths from 2020 on
- (July 9, 2020) BMW sources sustainable cobalt worth €100 million from Morocco
- (December 16, 2020) BMW Funds research on sustainable lithium extraction
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