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BATTERY MATERIALS Mercedes to source battery materials from certified mines

Author / Editor: Luke James / Johanna Erbacher

Mercedes Benz has announced that it will only be sourcing cobalt and lithium battery materials from responsible, mining-certified sites in the future. The company also intends to reduce cobalt content in new generation batteries to less than 10 percent.

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Mercedes-Benz is fulfilling its responsibility as part of the sustainability offensive and is now relying on sustainable supply chains for its electric vehicle fleet.
Mercedes-Benz is fulfilling its responsibility as part of the sustainability offensive and is now relying on sustainable supply chains for its electric vehicle fleet.
(Source: Daimler AG)

Although a shift en masse to Electric Vehicles (EVs) will mean that we’ll begin to see more cars producing zero emissions while driving, it doesn’t mean that the automotive industry’s carbon footprint will be eliminated entirely. Indeed, the EV supply chain will still be involved in activities harmful to the environment, such as mining, out of necessity.

EV batteries require the use of rare earth metals, and the mining process can be harmful to not only the environment but human rights, too. The issues surrounding the mining of cobalt are especially prevalent here environmental and human rights organizations are concerned.

A transition to responsible materials sourcing

In mid-November, German automaker Mercedes Benz announced that it will soon transition to sourcing cobalt and lithium for EV batteries from certified mining sites only. At the same time, the company also plans to shift away from cobalt usage, looking to reduce it to under 10 percent, as it explores different compositions for its EV battery cells.

In a press release, the company announced that this move doesn’t mean that it’ll suddenly be pulling out of countries deemed as a “high risk” for mining lithium and cobalt. Rather, Mercedes-Benz will work closely with organizations to improve the situation on the ground to protect and strengthen workers’ rights.

In taking these actions, Mercedes-Benz hopes to accelerate industry-wide standards for resource mining when it comes to the manufacture of EV battery cells. It’s not unheard of for mines in certain parts of the world to utilize child labor and feature harsh working conditions. The ‘Standard for Responsible Mining’ of the ‘Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) that the German automaker is promoting with these efforts hopes to remedy these situations and tackle human rights problems.

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The announcement made Mercedes-Benz’s position abundantly clear, though: If situations don’t improve after investments are made in the workforce and working conditions, the company will pull its operations.

"Going forward, we will only work with suppliers who agree to comply with these requirements," said Markus Schäfer, a member of Daimler AG’s (the owner of Mercedes-Benz) management board. "By doing so, we are paving the way for clean raw materials, from which other participants in the market can also benefit."

Moving away from cobalt

Cobalt has become the standard raw material used for powering applications like EVs, smartphones, and tablets due to its attractive characteristics: stability, heat-resistance, and anti-corrosive capabilities.

As demand for cobalt rises, however, the mining practices used to extract it have attracted considerable attention from environmental and human rights organizations, and there are concerns surrounding human rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the source of 60 percent of global cobalt mining. Around one-fifth of all cobalt mined worldwide comes from unregulated mines in the DRC. These concerns have led to the formation of the Standard for Responsible Mining (SRM), a set of principles established by IRMA.

In 2018, Mercedes-Benz commissioned an audit of 60 cobalt supply chain operations, and, at present, none of these are certified under the SRM. As a result, the German automaker plans to incorporate sustainable raw material extraction and IRMA mining standards into its supply contracts while also limiting the use of DRC cobalt mines.

Additionally, future Mercedes-Benz battery cells will see the use of cobalt fall to less than 10 percent, paving the way for the company to begin using post-lithium-ion technologies with a range of cobalt-free material compositions.

Mercedes-Benz isn’t the first automaker to announce changes to cobalt sourcing practices this year. In September, Tesla also announced plans to eliminate cobalt from its battery cathodes.

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