Scientists Warn: Battery Components May Become A New Type Of Oil

A low-carbon future cannot repeat the mistakes we have made with ICE.

You may love an electric vehicle for many reasons: some just like the fact that they are so silent, efficient, and green. Others know they are the future of personal mobility. And some defend them just because they may save the planet – as if the car was the evil to defeat. These will end up riding bikes or taking electric buses or trains. For all the others, EVs may ensure a low-carbon society. But only if we do not repeat the same mistakes made with oil. If we do, electric mobility may generate other environmental concerns.

Scientists from many parts of the world united to write a list of recommendations to avoid this. The text is on the latest issue of Science magazine, published this January 3, and it proposes a sustainable way to prevent worsening the greenhouse effect.

As the scientists remember, “the clean energy transition will be significantly mineral intensive,” according to the World Bank. In other words, battery production demands mining. And the critical minerals may come from unstable places, to say the least.

Take cobalt, for example. Most of it – 64 percent – comes from Congo. According to the scientists involved, miners use child and women labor to drop costs down. The picture above shows the conditions in which men, women, and children work there. They may be even worse, but our Congolese readers may tell us what it is really like.

As much as cobalt, other minerals are essential to battery production. If you think new technologies may drive the need for these minerals down, the scientists warn that similar materials will be needed. 

“Even if alternatives are found for one metal, there will be reliance on another as the scope of possibilities is inherently limited by physical and chemical properties of elements.”

That is very true regarding lithium, but some researches claim to have got rid of nickel and cobalt altogether, such as the one Nikola said it would present later this year. There are researches with sulfur and cheaper materials that would be much easier to obtain as well. Anyway, we understand the scientists involved want to ensure current battery technology does not turn into a new kind of environmental concern. A new oil, so to speak.

They are right to worry about that since new tech takes time to be implemented. We’ll have to make do with what we have for quite a while. While these are “only projections,” “subject to uncertainty,” this is the scenario the scientists are counting on:

“Between 2015 and 2050, the global EV stock needs to jump from 1.2 million light-duty passenger cars to 965 million passenger cars, battery storage capacity needs to climb from 0.5 gigawatt-hour (GWh) to 12,380 GWh, and the amount of installed solar photovoltaic capacity must rise from 223 GW to more than 7,100 GW.”

There’s more:

“One recent assessment concluded that expected demand for 14 metals – such as copper, cobalt, nickel, and lithium – central to the manufacturing of renewable energy, EV, fuel cell, and storage technologies will grow substantially in the next few decades. Another study projected increases in demand for materials between 2015 and 2060 of 87,000% for EV batteries, 1,000% for wind power, and 3,000% for solar cells and photovoltaics.”

That will be quite a push. If not adequately handled, it can cause lots of problems. Imagine all the outcomes we could see.

Some claim the Gulf War and the Iraq War were solely due to oil despite the speech being the defense of democracy. If that is true, why wouldn’t there be a war on African countries rich in resources to defend freedom as well?

If a new dictator decides cobalt is too cheap, he may gather with other cobalt producers to create OCEC – or the Organization of Cobalt Exporting Countries. We could see many new such organizations emerge, such as OLEC (lithium), OBEC (beryllium), and so forth. China would not even need them with rare earth materials. There could be scenarios we are not yet capable of predicting.

What do the scientists propose to do to ensure the transition to clean mobility is problem-free? The Science text recommends four significant policies.

The one that makes the most sense is including minerals in climate and energy planning. Tracing the origin of minerals is also a great way to protect the people involved in extracting them if price impacts do not destroy these efforts.

To prevent material dependency on a single country, the scientists propose to explore new resource streams, such as international waters. Some of their colleagues already found significant rare-earth reserves at the Japanese seabed. The text even suggests space mining. That is up to a lot of discussions. Why not keep looking for alternative materials for batteries, for example?

That leads us to the first proposition: “diversify mining enterprises for local ownership and livelihood dividends.” If you don’t know what that means, the authors want governments to stimulate small-scale mining since “it provides livelihood potential for at least 40 million people worldwide, with an additional three to five times more people indirectly supported by the sector.”

Besides sounding neo-luddist, this proposition will probably favor precisely what the scientists claim to be more concerned about: child and underpaid women labor. If machines help extract more minerals more efficiently and affordably, why stimulate people to work in small-scale mining? To ensure jobs while they stick themselves in the same worrying ground holes the Congo photograph above shows? It makes no sense.

Proposing guidelines for sustainable mining is the right path to avoid that making batteries turns into something nastier than drilling and burning oil. Mixing politics and ideologies with them may jeopardize the whole effort.

Sustainable supply of minerals and metals key to a low-carbon energy future The global low-carbon revolution could be at risk unless new international agreements and governance mechanisms are put in place to ensure a sustainable supply of rare minerals and metals, a new academic study has warned. The amount of cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and rare earth elements needed for solar photovoltaics, batteries, electric vehicle (EV) motors, wind turbines, fuel cells, and nuclear reactors will likely grow at a rapid pace in the upcoming years. Even if alternatives are found for one metal, there will be reliance on another as the scope of possibilities is inherently limited by physical and chemical properties of elements. However, with global supplies often heavily monopolized by a single country, confronted by social and environmental conflict, or concentrated in poorly functioning markets, there is a real possibility that a shortage of minerals could hold back the urgent need for a rapid upscaling of low-carbon technologies. In some cases, markets are providing misleading signals to investors that can lead to poor decisions. In other cases, the countries or regions supplying minerals are politically unstable. An international team of researchers have made a number of recommendations to help manage the demand for such low-carbon technology minerals as well as limiting the environmental and public health damage of their extraction and processing, supporting social benefits, and also ensuring the benefits are shared more universally and equitably, in a new paper published in Science today [January 3]. Benjamin K. Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Sussex, said: “Mining, metals, and materials extraction is the hidden foundation of the low-carbon transition. But it is far too dirty, dangerous, and damaging to continue on its current trajectory. “The impacts to mining rightfully alarm many environmental campaigners as a large price to pay to safeguard a low-carbon future. But as the extraction through terrestrial mining becomes more challenging, the on-land reserves of some terrestrial minerals dwindle or the social resistance in some countries escalates, even oceanic or even space based mineral reserves will become a plausible source.” Although the new study calls for renewed attention to tackle existing conditions of terrestrial extraction and processing of metals, it also states that there are important prospects of cobalt and nickel on the continental shelf within states’ Exclusive Economic Zones as well as on the outer continental shelf regions. Within international waters, metallic nodules found in the vast Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific as well as in cobalt and tellurium crusts, found in seamounts worldwide, provide some of the richest deposits of metals for green technologies. But minerals in more pristine and distinctive ecosystems near hydrothermal vents should remain off-limits for mineral extraction for the foreseeable future, the researchers add. Morgan Bazilian, Professor and Director of the Payne Institute for Public Policy, Colorado School of Mines, said: “As the global energy landscape changes, it is becoming more mineral and metal intensive. Thus, the sustainability and security of material supply chains is essential to supporting the energy transition. How we shape that pathway will have important consequences for everything from the environment, to development, and geopolitics.” The study’s authors also recommend: ·        Enhance and coordinate international agreements on responsible mining and traceability in order to establish mineral supply justice. ·        Greatly expand the recycling and reuse of rare minerals to extend the lifetimes of products and stretch out reserves. ·        Diversify mineral supply scale to incorporate both small and large-scale operations while allowing miners to have control over mineral revenue through stronger benefit sharing mechanisms and access to markets. ·        Focus development donor policies to recognize the livelihood potential of mining in areas of extreme poverty rather than just regulating the sector for tax revenues. ·        Stipulate stronger Extended Producer Responsibility for products that use valuable rare minerals. This can ensure that responsibility for the entire lifespan of a product including at the end of its usefulness shifts from users or waste managers to major producers such as Apple, Samsung, and Toshiba. ·        Materials security of essential minerals and metals to be actively incorporated into formal climate planning including establishing a list of “critical minerals” for energy security (which is already done to some degree by the European Union and United States). Saleem Ali, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware, said: "Our analysis is aimed at galvanizing international policy-makers to include mineral supply concerns for green technologies in climate change negotiations. We need to build on the resolution on mineral governance passed at the United Nations Environment Assembly in 2019 and operationalize a clear action plan on supply chain security for a low carbon transition." Benoit Nemery, Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Environment and Health at KU Leuven, said: “Let’s not achieve a low-carbon future at the expense of mineworkers and public health.” Factfile – The expected rising demands for a decarbonized future Between 2015 and 2050, the global EV stock needs to jump from 1.2 million light-duty passenger cars to 965 million passenger cars For the same period, battery storage capacity needs to climb from 0.5 gigawatt-hour (GWh) to 12,380 GWh while the amount of installed solar photovoltaic capacity must rise from 223 GW to more than 7100 GW. Another research study has predicted increases in demand for materials for EV batteries of 87,000%, 1000% for wind power, and 3000% for solar cells and photovoltaics between 2015 and 2060.
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