Any thoughts about the truth of these stories I keep reading that electric cars use lithium metal and cobalt in the batteries and motors, and other apparently rare elements in the drive motors, with long-term availability of both being very much in control of China and Russia? Is this true, and how serious is the problem? Surely such things are going to be recyclable anyway though?
Well Jim, it’s a fact that China have been cleverly sweetening up and signing contracts with many countries in Africa and South America with financial aid, and exclusive supply agreements with many metals and minerals, and those involved with materials used in electric vehicles are just some of them. History will probably treat China much as it has treated Britain, Germany, France, Belgium and Spain, as evil exploiters of the other nationís resources, but maybe they will do a better job than we earlier colonials? I don’t think China’s ambitions are world domination, as they have enough problems keeping their own population happy, without thinking about the rest of the world. Actually, the main world producers of lithium are Australia, Chile and Argentina, with China a poor fourth, although Chile has the largest reserves, and the highest potential output. China has greater lithium reserves than Australia, but has yet to really gear up their mining production, but has large shareholdings in Chilean lithium producers and a controlling interest in the largest Australian lithium mining company. So political control could well be a significant future influence on supplies for lithium for batteries, and price certainly is, although it now shows some signs of stabilising after doubling between 2015 and 2018.
Cobalt is another story though, and possibly of somewhat greater concern, with the somewhat unstable Democratic Republic of Congo having more than 60 per cent of the known world reserves, the three prime producers there being Glencore, a Swiss based company, Randgold Resources, and another called China Molybdenum, whose origins are clear! Russia is also a significant producer, after Congo, and ahead of Australia. However, China also accounts for over 95 per cent of the world’s production of what are called ìrare earth metalsî, which are a small, but significant, component in the magnets of DC drive motors. Having virtual world control of these elements puts China in a powerful position. They are crucial to modern technology, in everything from MRI machines and satellites, to headphones and nuclear reactors. One of the reasons why Tesla originally chose to use AC induction motors in its earlier models was to avoid dependence on such materials, but apparently for cost reasons they have now switched to DC motors that do use neodymium, one of these rare earth metals, in the Model 3. However, a team of Japanese scientists has recently found a deposit of rare earth elements 1,000 miles off the Japanese coast in the territory of Minamitori Island. Some 16 million tons were estimated to be lurking in the offshore mud, enough to meet global demand on a ìsemi-infinite basis.î This has great geopolitical significance, and in the event of any future conflict with China, Minamitori’s reserves of rare earth materials would be a defence against any single nation dominating the rare earth market.
Regarding recycling, the somewhat surreal plans for EV batteries, when their useful performance has dropped below a certain level, is to stack them up by the hundred and use their much reduced capacity for grid electricity storage. It all sounds a bit unlikely to me, but then much of today’s world looked like that a decade or more ago, so who am I to argue with such plans? I think the rare earth elements in EV drive motors are going to have a very long life before they become available for recycling anyway. The motors themselves seem likely to have a 20 year plus life potential, so there won’t be very many of them available for any great volume of recycling, other than from written off vehicles. Hope this has all been of interest, and thanks for your letter Jim.