Outer-space prospecting aims to boost EU’s battery plans

One of the Copernicus satellites awaits testing. [Photo: Airbus]

This article is part of our special report Clean mobility’s challenging road ahead.

Space policy and efforts to boost electric vehicle uptake share a somewhat unusual link, beyond connected cars and global positioning systems: procuring raw materials could soon be made easier via satellites.

One million electric vehicles will be sold in the European Union alone next year, according to fresh estimates, while 50% of new car sales globally will be EVs by 2032.

Depending on how costs evolve, nearly three-quarters of the world’s cars could be electric-powered by 2050. That means the EU will need batteries and lots of them.

Domestic carmakers are set to make investments in the technology worth some €145 billion and Brussels has big plans to tap into a battery market that could eventually be worth €250 billion per year.

European batteries will struggle to compete on price with their Asian equivalents so the idea is to follow the organic food industry’s lead and offer consumers the green option. That means production facilities running on clean power and raw materials being sustainable.

Guaranteeing the latter is no easy feat given a whole host of environmental and social considerations. The World Economic Forum cites negligence and human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, toxic spills in Latin America and air pollution in China.

A certification label for raw materials is currently in the works, with one EU project hoping to wrap up work by 2021. It intends to take into account every part of the supply chain from prospecting and mining, to refining and manufacturing.

The EU is creating a sustainability label for raw materials

An EU research group is creating a certification method for raw materials, to be completed by 2021. The project is part of a push to sustainably mine the metals needed for Europe’s clean energy transition. But critics say certification is not the answer.

“When we talk about Europe in the future, we have to be talking about only the most sustainable batteries on our market,” European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič told EURACTIV in an interview.

“The next big thing is going to be standardisation of batteries. We’re already working with authorities like CEN-CENELEC and we want to make sure that all the great work done by our researchers is reflected in the new norms and standards,” the Slovak official added.

Vital battery components like cobalt, lithium and nickel are not only available outside the EU though. During a regular meeting of the bloc’s Battery Alliance, Šefčovič said talks are advanced on exploiting a lithium mine in Spain, as well as other sites in Finland and Poland.

An elegant solution to concerns over how third-party countries source their materials is to capture the supply chain domestically, where EU rules hold full sway.

Sefcovic forsees 'an Airbus for batteries, for 5G, AI, green tech'

In one of his first interviews since getting the nod to serve another five years in the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič talked about his new job, industrial policy and the “global mega-trends” the EU should lead heading into the next decade.

The Kaustinen lithium mine in Finland is Europe’s largest deposit and could reportedly produce materials for 10 years. There are also nickel and graphite deposits in the area.

Kaustinen’s resources were actually discovered in the 1950s but interest has only peaked recently thanks to growing demand, as the costs are significant. Estimates say €250 million will be needed to produce 25GWh of battery capacity.

Environmental groups want there to be less focus on sourcing new materials though and for the EU to devote more attention to recycling.

Julia Poliscanova, a clean vehicles expert with Transport & Environment, told EURACTIV that “all cobalt, lithium and nickel found in batteries on the EU market should be fully recycled and used to produce more batteries instead of mining virgin material”.

Battery recycling will be on the next Commission’s radar. Šefčovič admitted in the interview that revising EU rules is on the cards and that “batteries have to be fit for reuse and industrial recycling, so you don’t have to open up these packs with hammers to get materials out”.

Eye in the sky

For now, one of the next steps is to find new sites and increase domestic supply. Commission analysis estimates that recycling and “additional mining activities” could meet 15% of EU electric vehicle demand by 2030.

That is where space policy comes in, as the bloc’s Earth-observation satellite system, Copernicus, can be used in the prospecting side of the process. 

The RawMatCop Programme aims to do just that, by providing training and sharing expertise. Its mission statement says that “Copernicus satellite acquisitions can greatly contribute […] through free access to high-quality geospatial information.”

As well as helping to identify new sites, Copernicus is also being trialled as a policing tool. RawMatCop teamed up with the UN’s Environment Programme to observe illegal gold mining in Colombia and track its effects.

“Such activities create a spirit of low acceptance for mining industries in the nation and worldwide,” according to the project website. The point of mapping the mining’s impact is also to help local communities who are often impacted by the activities.

Blast-off: Europe’s place in the space race

Space exploration and exploitation has traditionally been the domain of the Americans and Russians. But Europe is in the mix too, from building the machines that put satellites in orbit to harbouring dreams of mining asteroids. Here’s what the future holds.

When asked about space-based applications, Šefčovič replied that “indeed, for prospecting raw materials it has an application but it also contributes to the tough story of climate change. It is, at least, making the case for clean mobility stronger.”

Copernicus will go from strength-to-strength according to space policy analysts contacted by EURACTIV, who cited several high profile cases lately where national governments requested its services to manage natural disasters.

Portugal, Sweden and even countries as far away as Bolivia have all called on the service to track wildfires and assist firefighting efforts.

Jean-Claude Juncker’s industry chief, Elżbieta Bieńkowska, told EURACTIV that she agrees the satellite system will only increase in importance given the added focus of the next Commission on climate policy.

EU industry chief hands over full docket to successor

Polish Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska will relinquish the reins of EU industrial policy to France’s Sylvie Goulard on 31 October. Ahead of the changeover, she looked back on her time in office and discussed the challenges facing her successor, including her beefed-up portfolio.

The Commission has proposed an increased war chest for space policy under the next long-term budget, setting aside around €16 billion for satellite development and maintenance.

According to a financial breakdown, Copernicus is set to get €5.8 billion and global positioning system Galileo €9.7 billion.

It will be up to Bieńkowska’s successor to pilot EU space policy into the next decade, utilising the services of a new directorate-general dedicated solely to defence and space matters.

Currently that is set to be France’s Sylvie Goulard but members of the European Parliament decided this week that she will have to answer more questions about her past activities before they give her the green light.

Sylvie Goulard given rough ride by European Parliament

France’s European Commissioner-designate, Sylvie Goulard, faced a European Parliament hearing on Wednesday (2 October), where she was mostly questioned on issues of integrity, rather than the substance of the job on the table. EURACTIV France reports.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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