With the amount of metals we need to dig out of the ground, are global electric vehicle targets even possible?
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As the world heads towards transport decarbonisation, lithium-ion battery and hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles have become key players.
But with batteries and hydrogen fuel cells being the most likely to replace the world’s existing fossil fuel fleet, an important question remains: are there enough raw material reserves to replace the existing vehicle stock?
Foresion has addressed this question in its new report Supply Chains for Vehicle Power Packs: Li-Ion Batteries and Hydrogen Fuel Cells Challenges and Opportunities, arguing that “the limited reserves of cobalt cannot support the replacement of more than half of the world’s vehicle fleet.”
It also says that the extraction capacity for lithium-cobalt for Li-ion batteries as well as platinum for hydrogen fuel cells “is close to ten times less than what would be required to supply power pack manufacturing to replace old vehicles.”
The report highlights that Li-ion battery and hydrogen fuel cells manufacturing capacity may be insufficient to cater for the demand in countries where the sale of fossil fuel vehicles will be banned.
Li-ion batteries for battery electric vehicles (BEV) requires a few raw materials such as lithium, graphite, cobalt, nickel, and manganese, with lithium and cobalt being the rarest.
The study says that while lithium reserves – currently estimated at 86 million tonnes – would be enough to manufacture around 5.3 billion vehicles, the same cannot be said for cobalt.
Currently, the report says, “cobalt reserves are estimated at 25 million tonnes which would only be sufficient to manufacture around 600 million vehicles if all cobalt is used for this purpose.”
And while researchers have recognised the challenges posed by limited cobalt reserves and have started to explore for alternative cathode formulations for cobalt-free power packs, they are still at a ‘research stage’, with most substitutes for cobalt “resulting either in decreased power pack performance or increased production costs.”
Extraction and production rates can also impact the battery or fuel cell production capacities. In 2020, Foresion says that 82,000 tonnes of lithium and 140,000 tonnes of cobalt was produced – supporting a yearly production of 3.5 million Li-ion batteries for BEV.
But to replace about 40 million older vehicles, the world needs to produce around 880,000 tonnes of lithium and 2.2 million tonnes of cobalt.
A mind-boggling amount and the numbers for platinum reserves for hydrogen fuel cells aren’t any better.
Small amounts of platinum – about 0.4 grams/kWH – are required for hydrogen fuel cells for fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV), where fuel cells in vehicles generate electricity using oxygen from the air and compressed hydrogen.
FCEVs also sometimes use a small battery or super-capacitor in combination to power an onboard electric motor.
While known platinum reserves are estimated at 100 million kilograms or 100,000 tonnes, the report states that if all platinum reserves were used to manufacture fuel cells, “these would be enough to power just over 2 billion vehicles.”
And in terms of extraction, in 2019, 180,000 kilograms of platinum was produced, supported a yearly production of 3.6 million vehicles.
So, to manufacture enough hydrogen fuel cells to power replaced vehicles, the report says platinum extraction and production would need to increase “15-fold to 2.7 million kilograms.”
Battery and fuel cell manufacturing capacities also impact the volume and availability of power packs, the report claims.
“In 2020, the worldwide Li-ion battery manufacturing capacity was around 450 GWh and by 2030 this number is expected to quadruple to 1.3 TWh,” Foresion argues.
As it stands, the existing Li-ion battery manufacturing capacity can support battery production for 3.6 million vehicles, while the anticipated production capacity in 2030 supports more than 10 million vehicles with countries such as Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Norway, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Japan, Sweden, and the United Kingdom planning to ban new fossil fuel vehicle sales by 2030.
And it is possible, Foresion says, that by 2030 the battery and fuel cell production capacities together “may be enough to sustain new vehicle sales provided that similar bans of fossil fuel sales are not announced in other major vehicle markets such as China or the United States.”
But raw material supply, extraction capacity, and energy pack manufacturing have not received much attention from contemporary policy debates, the report argues, and the failure to do so could lead to poorer mobility outcomes and worse environmental outcomes.
If hold-ups in the battery or fuel cell supply chains limit the number of vehicles sold to less than the sales required to replace the stock of old vehicles, this means more polluting cars could be left on the roads for longer.
There is room for opportunity, especially in the areas of promoting power pack modularisation for batteries and to fossil fuel vehicle conversions to batteries or hydrogen fuel cells.
Firstly, modular and interoperable power packs can reduce waste and raw material extraction requirements, while exchanging discharged power packs with charged ones can reduce infrastructure requirements and expenditure required to transition away from fossil fuels.
The report goes on to say that parts of the existing vehicle fleet can be converted to run on batteries or fuel cells, which would “avoid expending resources to replace vehicles and would avoid a significant waste management problem after fossil fuel vehicles are disposed of.”