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BMW is investing in sustainable and ethical lithium as it expands e-mobility globally

Rare earths that go into making electric cars is a controversial subject. Detractors point at the requirements of the industry for large amounts of lithium and cobalt and point at the energy required to obtain it, as well as unethical practices in mining. However, BMW is looking towards sustainable lithium for its e-mobility future.  

BMW was one of the first major carmakers to ensure that its cobalt was obtained from ethical sources, where miners were treated properly and their working conditions were decent. This followed an outcry by – among others – Amnesty International when it became clear that some of the rare earths its early EVs, like the i3, used were coming from places with dubious practices.  

Now, BMW has announced that it is going to be sourcing its lithium from companies and locations where practices are sustainable and responsible. It will be sourcing its lithium from US-based Livent, spending some 285 million euros with them and starting production with this newly-sourced supply in 2022.  

Part of BMW’s rationale behind using Livent is to ensure it is spreading its procurement of the critical metal over a number of suppliers to futureproof its supply.

“Lithium is one of the key raw materials for electromobility. By sourcing lithium from a second supplier, we are securing requirements for production of our current fifth generation of battery cells. At the same time, we are making ourselves technologically, geographically and geopolitically less dependent on individual suppliers,” said Dr Andreas Wendt, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG.  

The new supply of lithium will originate in Argentina in the border region between it, Bolivia and Chile – an area which has around half of the world’s known lithium reserves. Livent is using a sustainable extraction method to obtain the valuable metal from the brine in which it is found.  

Traditionally, brine is pumped to the surface and evaporated to leave the lithium deposits – a process that uses a huge amount of energy and generates up to 15 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of lithium. Livent’s method returns most of the brine into the ground, reducing the amount that needs to be evaporated and retaining the brine and groundwater layers’ natural balance. 

As a demonstration of BMW’s confidence in Livent’s methods, it is a pending member of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) on BMW’s recommendation. BMW Group itself was the first carmaker to join IRMA in early 2020 and is looking to work with mining suppliers who meet the strict environmental and social standards required to become members.  

Whilst BMW isn’t looking to be totally electric by 2030, it does expect 50 per cent of its global sales to be EVs by then, with much of the rest of its sales being made up of vehicles with some form of electrification. As such, securing its lithium supplies now is a shrewd move.  

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