Will people have enough resources to switch to electric cars?

Will people have enough resources to switch to electric cars?

How countries are switching to electric cars

In the first quarter of 2021, global sales of electric vehicles grew by 140% compared to the same period in 2020, mainly due to demand in the EU, China, and the United States. The transition to electric cars is gaining momentum at a rate that their most staunch supporters could not have dreamed of a couple of years ago. Even without a new regulatory stimulus, half of global passenger car sales by 2030 will be electric, according to Bloomberg NEF (BNEF), a consultancy. According to the scenario of the International Energy Agency, by that time the fleet of electric vehicles will reach 145 million, which will be 7% of all cars.

This accelerated development of the electric car market is due to three factors. Firstly, 15 countries have already announced a phase-out of sales of cars with an internal combustion engine ― in 2035, the EU will completely reduce them to zero. Secondly, the cost of batteries is decreasing: from 2010 to 2020, the prices of lithium-ion batteries have fallen by 89%, and the average price was $137 per kWh. Finally, the range of electric cars is expanding. In 2020, about 370 electric vehicle models were available, up 40% from a year earlier. Automakers have announced plans to release 450 more models by 2022. From 2035, the American concern General Motors will produce only electric cars, Audi will refuse cars on combustible fuel as early as 2033. Other manufacturers have announced similar plans. Such ambitious plans pose new problems for humanity. First, how to reduce the number of metals in batteries, whose extraction has serious social and environmental consequences. Secondly, how to improve battery recycling so that valuable metals can be efficiently reused.

Most of the rare earth metals in electric vehicles are found in electric motors and batteries. Motors in electric vehicles are divided into two types: synchronous with permanent magnets and asynchronous. One permanent magnet motor — this technology is used in more than 90% of electric vehicles sold today — requires 0.25-0.5 kg of the rare earth metal neodymium, 0.06-0.35 kg of other rare earth elements, 3-6 kg copper, 0.9-2 kg of iron and 0.01-0.03 kg of boron. Rare earth metals are not used in asynchronous motors, but 11-24 kg of copper is required for production.

On average, one car lithium-ion battery contains up to 8 kg of lithium, 35 kg of nickel, 20 kg of manganese, and 14 kg of cobalt. BNEF predicts that electric vehicle batteries will cost less than $100 per kilowatt-hour by 2023 (from $137 today), and by the mid-2020s, electric cars will cost the same as ICE cars. But are there enough resources for this?

The eco-friendly electric car, non-environmental battery

Lithium is not a scarce metal, but a sharp increase in demand can lead to a jump in prices for it. Its reserves to date, according to BNEF, amount to 21 million tons, enough to switch to electric vehicles by the middle of the 21st century. The largest deposits of lithium are located in Chile, Bolivia, the USA, Argentina, Congo, China, Brazil, Serbia, Australia, and other countries. But the extraction of lithium causes significant harm to the environment. To get a ton of lithium, you need to process 250 tons of ore. To extract lithium from the rock to produce a battery for one electric car, up to 80,000 liters of a scarce resource, water, are consumed. The mining of cobalt also needed to make lithium-ion batteries, is linked to child labor, environmental abuse, and corruption. According to the US Geological Survey, the global reserves of cobalt in all its varieties (except marine) are about 25.5 million tons. Two-thirds of the world's reserves are mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including small-scale artisanal production. Of the 255,000 Congolese cobalt miners, 40,000 are children, and there are even six-year-olds among them. Mining is done by hand, and for a day of labor, workers receive two dollars. In addition, cobalt mining results in incredibly high carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions and significant electricity consumption.

Since the 2010s, manufacturers have been looking for ways to reduce the amount of "toxic" metal in batteries due to the surge in cobalt prices and the ethical issues associated with its mining. The complete elimination of cobalt often reduces the specific energy of the battery or implies an increase in demand for nickel. The latter is mined in Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Russia, and the Philippines, which is detrimental to the environment and health. The main waste of nickel production is a hazardous substance ― sulfur dioxide, which enters the atmosphere and turns into sulfuric acid. Nickel can be replaced with manganese, the price of which is lower and the reserves of which are larger ― 1.3 billion tons for 2020. But changing the chemical composition affects the performance of the battery in the long run.

Why so few batteries are recycled

“The transition to electric vehicles is considered one of the measures that will help prevent the negative effects of climate change and improve air quality in cities“, Andrey Zaruev, an ESG Corporate Standards Expert, mentioned.

At the same time, scientists warn that the growing number of electric vehicles may lead to the formation of dumps of old batteries. Researchers have calculated that one million electric cars will produce 250,000 tons of toxic battery waste over their lifetime. This can be avoided by recycling batteries. It will also reduce the need for the extraction of valuable metals. According to the European Parliament, recycling efficiency is estimated at around 95% for cobalt and nickel and 80% for copper.

Today, small amounts of batteries are recycled. In Australia, only 2-3% of lithium-ion batteries are collected and sent for recycling, no more than 5%  in the US and the European Union. Battery recycling technologies are most actively developed in China, Japan, and South Korea, that is, in the countries where they are produced. For example, a subsidiary of the world's largest manufacturer of lithium-ion cells, CATL, can process 120,000 tons of batteries per year. Such volumes will be enough for the production of 200 thousand cars.

Previously, battery manufacturers did not pay due attention to recycling opportunities. Instead, they sought to reduce costs and increase battery life and charge capacity. In addition, processing technologies are still imperfect and energy-intensive. In a typical recycling plant, batteries are first crushed, the cells are turned into a powdery mixture of all the materials used. This mixture is then separated into its elemental constituents, either by melting down (pyrometallurgy) or by dissolving in acid (hydrometallurgy).

How to set up recycling

Efficient battery recycling today is hampered by a lack of labeling. Lithium-ion batteries come in a variety of chemistries and shapes. Without labeling, recyclers cannot identify the structure of the device, and therefore the recycling method.

So far, the world has not accumulated enough batteries to make recycling more efficient. This would require millions of lithium-ion batteries to reach the end of their useful life. But this will take time: batteries have become durable and can last up to 20 years. Zaruev notes that a used battery can be reanimated and later turned into a stationary drive. “Renewable energy sources, wind and solar, have generation peaks. To smooth them out, you can use batteries from electric vehicles for their intended purpose. Their capacity has fallen, but if this is critical for a car, then it is not for a drive,” the expert comments. “In Russia, there are already two factories that process lithium-ion batteries, so far ― mainly from mobile phones. In addition, the plans of the state corporation Rosatom are to build seven ecotechnoparks in Russia by 2024. According to the Ecology national project, from March 1, 2022, Rosatom will act as a federal environmental operator, which must set up a waste management system for hazard classes 1-2. Lithium-ion batteries are just second-class waste,” adds Andrey Zaruev.

The expert believes that more attention should be paid to logistics, that is, the process of collecting used batteries. Recycling can be stimulated by the principle of extended producer responsibility, which will oblige battery manufacturers to accept used devices and dispose of them.

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