With more focus on protecting the environment, more and more of us are looking to the technology of electric vehicles (EVs), but as volume increases so does the demand for Lithium. Andrew Marsh FIMI, Engineering at Ezi-Methods provides his viewpoint on the weak spots of turning electric.
There is quite a lot of momentum to ‘electrify’ passenger cars, trucks and buses around the world, and especially in Europe where a tax on vehicle manufacturers who exceed fleet average emission targets set year by year add to the economic pressures underway before COVID-19 arrived.
The EU emission law and especially the CO2 tax, are all centred around what comes out of an exhaust pipe. If there is no exhaust pipe, or it only emits water vapour, the vehicle is classified as ‘zero emission’. On the other hand, the investment in processing materials, energy and more counts as zero because whilst it is very real, it does not come out of the vehicle’s tailpipe.
The result is a rash of internal combustion-powered vehicles with mild-hybrid (MHEV), hybrid (HEV) and plug-in hybrid (PHEV) powertrains, and a few hydrogen fuel cell (FCEV) powered vehicles. In all cases, the requirement is to have on-board electric energy storage, and the most effective in terms of maximum power in minimum space are based around forms of lithium.
The long burn
The metal was discovered way back in 1800 to 1817, but it was not until 1923 that commercial production became viable, even though extraction of Lithium from clay was patented by USA Government research labs in 1919. The primary sources are from mining ore (predominantly in Western Australia) and extraction from salt lakes (the highest yield sources are in South America). The processing is where the biggest issues arise: In South America, the salt lakes are ancient parts of the sea bed, and are in very arid conditions. To extract the Lithium water, chemicals and heat are required – all of which has to be routed near to the salt lakes, and with considerable risk of local pollution.
Initial applications included glass manufacturing, aiding the flow of aluminium during smelting (now almost defunct), high-temperature grease and….. nuclear, both power generation (for cooling) as well as for weapons. By 1964 the USA, USSR and PRC (China) governments who cornered Lithium production for weapons decided to sell off some of the stockpile.
Enter the battery
The search for better energy storage never really stopped, but the first Lithium battery application existed in 1973 before it was deemed to be too difficult to make. In the modern sense, Lithium found new forms and applications during the early 1990s for mobile phones and continued to evolve with the first units capable of scaling for automotive applications becoming available by the early 2000s. In many ways, this is a young industry, and investment has been sporadic.
Very roughly 1kg of Lithium salt is needed for each kWh of battery capacity. If we say a typical pure EV family car would need at least 40 kWh to enable limitations of the charging infrastructure and associated range anxiety to be overcome, then 1 million vehicles made in one year would need 40 million kg (40,000 tonnes) of Lithium.
Lithium global production has increased from 28,100 tonnes in 2010, to 95,000 tonnes in 2018 and 77,000 tonnes in 2019. The issue? It takes at least 5 years to bring on a new mining/processing , and every single vehicle manufacturer wants to either electrify internal combustion engine-powered vehicles and/or produce pure electric vehicles.
Global vehicle production runs at around 80 million units per year, so to get to 10% market share for pure electric vehicles would require 320,000 tonnes of Lithium alone. And that’s without touching on the supply of Cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo….
That means for pure electric cars with an average of just 40 kWh per vehicle to capture 10 per cent of the annual global vehicle market would require tripling the Lithium output, with not one gramme for any other application. We can see directly pure electric vehicle applications are unlikely to achieve much more than 2 per cent of annual global even by 2025, assuming a step change in mining investment right now.
The bottom line
- Pure electric transport needs to move away from the idea of vast batteries recharged with a wire connected to a charger. This is a crude re-imagined vision of fossil fuel, where there are dedicated refuelling points and enough energy on board to do what a petrol or diesel vehicle can do.
- On-board energy storage will remain important, and it looks like Li-Ion batteries will play a big part in that for the next decade until we find another technology which costs nothing and is more effective storage (no pressure).
- Short to medium term strategy means the use of the internal combustion engine with the addition of a 1 kWh battery to aid acceleration (the main source of tailpipe pollution) and to enable regenerative braking to boost efficiency.
- Longer-term strategy, which needs to start immediately, is to find better ways to generate power (possibly more nuclear power) and to distribute that via the road to reduce the demand for giant battery packs. If this does not occur, the electric-only vision of transport will remain just a dream.
The days of expensive pure electric vehicles with dragster levels of acceleration subsidised by the general public – who in the main could not afford such vehicles – recharged by a power lead, are numbered. However, the major shift towards electrification is here to stay with internal combustion engines for at least the next decade.
In effect, the announcement of the internal combustion engine ‘death’ is a pure political dream, significantly disconnected from the current capability of the alternative systems to adequately fill the space vacated by so-called ‘dirty’ technology. Just take a view of well-known engineering experts such as major international accountancy companies, international banks and Non-Government Organisations queueing up to tell us how life is going to be. Yes – you got it – zero knowledge and less credibility, steering us all to massive debts (guess who gets the fees?) to kill economic activity for decades to come! Fear not. Economics will limit the roll-out of the dream.