Procurement of resources for electric mobility

Electric mobility offers everything we need for an efficient and sustainable future, but at the same time presents us with challenges: from raw materials to recycling. Volkswagen embraces its responsibility and works on holistic solutions for both people and the environment.

Illustration of lithium and cobalt

Electric mobility needs raw materials

Mobility needs energy. Electric mobility is an especially efficient form. After all, with the same amount of energy you can travel three to four times as far as a driver of an electric vehicle than with a combustion engine vehicle. The new ID.3 obtains the power to do this from a lithium-ion battery.

Lithium-ion battery cells consist of an anode (graphite on copper foil), a separator, an electrolyte and a cathode (lithium metal oxide containing lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese). Furthermore, electrochemical power stores with comparable properties can be produced with LFP which is a lithium metal oxide.

The raw materials in an ID.3 battery.

What central raw materials are used to make a lithium-ion rechargeable battery? Where in the world are they sourced from? And how much of each raw material is in your ID.3? Find out here.

Cobalt: the element

The name comes from the word “cobaltum” (Latin for “goblin”) because people once believed that goblins used this once unusable mineral to contaminate ores.

  • Symbol                                        Co
  • Reserves*                                   7,000,000 t
  • Appearance                                Metallic blue/grey
  • Aggregate state                         Solid

* Economically exploitable deposits worldwide in 2019 according to the state of the art; source: USGS

Measures at Volkswagen

The production of vehicles requires raw materials whose exploration generally has an impact on existing ecosystems – together with effects on both people and the environment. We are conscious of this fact. We have therefore contractually obligated our direct suppliers to adhere to high environmental and social standards in a Code of Conduct  and they are also specifically requested therein to exclude human rights violations in their supply chains.

However, at this current point in time, we still cannot fully guarantee that our requirements placed on our direct suppliers are fulfilled right through to the mines. The reason for this is that a holistic audit of the supply chain is a very complex task. Volkswagen does not even currently buy raw materials for batteries, but instead procures finished battery cells. As a result, there are up to eight processing steps and intermediary suppliers between the battery used by us and the mine, which leads to a lack of transparency in the supply chain.

Transparency and sustainability risks in relation to the supply chain using the example of battery production
Transparency and sustainability risks in relation to the supply chain using the example of battery production
1 Mining
2 Distributor
3 Refinery
4 Cathode
5 Battery cell
6 Transparency
7 Sustainability risk
Drive Sustainabiltiy-Logo

Based on a study conducted by the sustainability initiative “Drive Sustainability”, of which Volkswagen is a founding member, we have identified 16 raw materials that constitute an increased risk of violations of the sustainability requirements – also including lithium and cobalt. Our aim is to track the upstream supply chain for these raw materials through to the mining, to identify all suppliers and expose sustainability risks. Then we take measures to minimise these risks and benefit from our strength as the Volkswagen Group to implement better environmental and social standards along the entire supply chain.

We test innovative technologies so that we are technically well equipped for this process in the future. For example, in a pilot project with IBM and other partners within the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Network (RSBN), a blockchain will be employed to make the paths of minerals like cobalt seamless and transparent in near real-time. Data entered for each processing step can no longer be changed or deleted subsequently – from the mine to the Volkswagen plant.

Concept of a blockchain raw materials supply chain: decentralised, safe and transparent.
Concept of a blockchain raw materials supply chain: decentralised, safe and transparent.
1 Mine
2 Smelting
3 Subsupplier
4 Transport
5 Direct supplier
6 Volkswagen

Procurement of resources and challenges

More than half of the cobalt mined around the world comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The bulk is extracted in industrial open-cast mining. However, people also dig for cobalt on their own. This is done in environmental, social and safety conditions that are not acceptable to us.

To better understand and monitor the situation locally, we are cooperating on a project for the Certification of Raw Materials (CERA) to develop a sustainable standard for the mining of raw materials.

To make an even bigger impact – and in particular to prevent child labour – we are actively involved in the Global Battery Alliance. Here, we come together with many important stakeholders in the battery supply chain, with the aim of identifying and initiating concrete measures to improve the situation in the Congo.

Lithium is another raw material with an increased sustainability risk. The largest reserves are located in the salt lakes of South America, where it is dissolved in brine. This is pumped to the surface and the lithium is extracted through water evaporation. However, the excessive consumption of water has a negative impact on ecosystems and land use. 

Alternatively, lithium can also be found in sediment bound in minerals that can be extracted in conventional ore mining. For example, in Australia, where the bulk of lithium mining currently takes place. 

We also call for compliance with high environmental and social standards with respect to lithium. We face up to our shared responsibility with all the stakeholders involved in order to avoid a negative impact on people and nature through the extraction of lithium.  

More recycling, less mining of raw materials

The only aim in the long term can be to minimise the critical raw materials through to their complete avoidance in our products. We are therefore already engaging in research on the battery technologies of the future and, amongst other things, are working hard to significantly reduce the required amount of cobalt in the next 3-4 years.

We also want to meet the demand for raw materials and energy stores through an ever-increasing share of old batteries. Whether it be through the continued use of older, but intact batteries in a so-called “second life” – for example, in flexible quick-charging stations for festivals – or through the direct recycling of the raw materials contained therein. 

A pilot line for the enhancement of our innovative recycling process will start operation in the second half of 2020 in the Volkswagen Group Components plant in Salzgitter, in close proximity to our “Center of Excellence for Battery Cells”. We started to develop this process 10 years ago – so we are optimally prepared when the first larger battery returns are expected at the end of the 2020s.

Simplified illustration of the planned recycling loop for the cathode materials.
Simplified illustration of the planned recycling loop for the cathode materials.
0 Mining of raw materials
1 Battery production
2 First life
3 Disassembly of the battery system
4 Analysis of the battery modules
5 Further use of the  intact modules (2nd life)
6 Grinding
7 Separation and processing of the components
8 Reintroduction of the cathode materials nickel, cobalt, manganese and lithium into the production process.