The NMA Foundation presents The Car of the Future weekly feature:
To read about the issues with cobalt and lithium in Part 1 of this series, click HERE.
Material sourcing for the manufacture of electric cars can be quite challenging. From a due-diligence on so-called conflict minerals sourced from parts of the world that suffer from armed conflict, civil strife, and child/adult slavery to price gouging can give many automakers heartburn and consumers a higher price.
Some mining experts claim that due to the increase in demand for certain metals, it is kind of like the old rush days. The pursuit of new reserves plus the challenges of exploiting the current remain.
Mining group BHP’s chief commercial officer, Arnoud Balhuizen says the push to electric cars will create a shortage of the reddish metal due to the increased demand and declining reserves. Apparently, the world’s top copper mines are aging and many large mines will be exhausted soon.
BHP is the largest mining operation of copper in the world and in one of their mines located in Escondida, Chile, BHP now spends more money for the same production rate from just a few years ago. The once prolific mine has now declined 28 percent in copper ore grade which means that the ore becomes deeper and harder to extract each year.
EVs require four times more copper than internal combustion engines. Copper wire is used as an electrical conductor and in some cases, EVs are using nearly 200 pounds of copper wiring to power just one car.
One great thing about copper though is that it can be scrapped and recycled. It is estimated that at least 80 percent of all copper ever mined is still available due to recycling. In the U.S., more copper is recovered and reused than mined ore and the recycle value is so great that it can be up to 95 percent value of new ore.
Lithium-ion batteries currently used in electric cars produced by Tesla and Chevy also contain nickel. Not just any nickel though—this nickel has to be high-grade. The problem—only half of the world’s nickel is high grade which means half of the world’s miners of nickel are benefitting by making long-term supply deals with battery producers. The other half, miners of ferronickel and nickel pig iron grades, are not so lucky in this boom era for nickel.
High-grade nickel providers are already building plants to convert the ore into a powder like sulfate that is suited for EV batteries. Since sulfate nickel is in high demand it is now fetching a premium price over the London Metal Exchange.
The ironic thing about the nickel trade is that just a few years ago, many providers were shutting down or laying off many workers—now it is boom time again. Peter Bradford, chief executive of Independence Group Ltd, said, “The market dynamics will change in the coming years as a result of electric vehicles and battery growth is going to disrupt the market.”
Used primarily in catalytic converters, Palladium hit the threshold of $1000/ounce in October mainly due to demand from the auto industry. Russia and South Africa control most of the Palladium market. Russia currently mines 40 percent of the metal but South Africa has 95 percent of the world’s total reserves. South Africa has trouble mining the ore due to a number of factors: labor unrest, electricity supply disruption, and high costs in mining.
The high price of Palladium will affect internal combustion engines and ICE/electric hybrids. Palladium is also used in hydrogen fuel cells for an important separating membrane.
One of the more abundant metals in the world, Zinc has some possibilities for a new kind of battery according to researchers. Not only could they be used as a rechargeable and store as much as a Lithium-ion battery, zinc batteries could also be safer, cheaper, smaller and lighter.
CEO of energy technology at EnZinc Michael Bruz said that researchers are now aggressively testing Zinc batteries and working on scaling them for possible market readiness in 2019. He added, “When it comes to electric vehicles, the new batteries will be 30 to 50 percent cheaper than comparable Lithium-ion systems.”
One of the obstacles to Zinc batteries though is the rechargability. They tend to grow conductive whiskers called dendrites which eventually cause the battery to short circuit. The EnZine researchers have conquered this problem by developing a zinc anode that has porous, sponge-like architecture that can move the charge uniformly across the battery during discharge and recharge.
Bruz said, “Zinc is the fourth-most mined material on the planet—over 14 million tons of it are mined each year.” These zinc batteries are paired with a nickel cathode.
Significant concerns continue for automakers with regards to sourcing other metals such as the designated 3TG minerals: tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold which are needed for 50 percent of all car parts. In the spring 2017, automakers narrowly escaped a mandatory European Union due-diligence requirement for using 3TG conflict minerals sourced from places that use child labor, and/or have war or civil strife. Automakers vowed to voluntarily comply with these rules on importing materials into the EU and will be expected to buy 3TG from EU suppliers and not import raw materials directly.
Metals are essential to the manufacture and design of the car of the future. The challenges ahead are quite numerous and complex for sourcing the raw materials but with ongoing research and battery innovation, the challenges might not be so unusual.
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