The silent cost behind the world's electric vehicle revolution

The cars themselves may boast zero emissions. But as more hit the market, the scrabble for the coveted materials in their batteries and motors will exert an environmental and ethical toll of its own. What are manufacturers doing about it?

Published 30 Nov 2020, 11:01 GMT, Updated 30 Nov 2020, 12:22 GMT
Electric vehicles (EVs) on a kerbside charging point in St Albans, UK. While the cars are ...

Electric vehicles (EVs) on a kerbside charging point in St Albans, UK. While the cars are cleaner than combusting alternatives, considerations around the source of the electricity they are using – and, critically, the supply chain of the covetable components in their batteries – are becoming increasingly relevant as demand eventually becomes mandatory. 

Photograph by Alex Segre / Alamy

NOT LONG before he retired in 2019, former Mercedes-Benz boss Dieter Zetsche told CAR Magazine that electric vehicles can be dirtier than fossil-fuel alternatives if the electricity their charging point feeds off is generated in China – which relies on coal-fired power stations for well over half its electricity.

It’s improbable that Zetsche had an anti-electric vehicle (EV) agenda; even if it was late to the game, like many car manufacturers Mercedes has invested heavily in EVs, launching its all-electric EQC model last year. Zetsche quickly clarified that an EV is around 40 per cent greener than a fossil-fuel equivalent if driven in Germany.

And EVs in general really are cleaner: the International Council On Clean Transportation states that the average EV in Europe produces 50 per cent fewer life-cycle greenhouse gases than a typical car. 

Refined lithium. While a simple element, the chemistry of the metal make it ideal for recharging, as well as operating in extremes of temperature. Thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones, personal smart devices such as tablets and laptops, and now electric cars, lithium has seen its demand surge in recent years. 

Photograph by Björn Wylezich / Alamy

But Zetsche's comment, and others like it, are becoming more prescient as the UK and other nations march towards an all-electric future – and demand for more than simply the electricity that recharges them grows.  

If questions surrounding energy generation have traditionally been the big black cloud hanging over EVs’ zero-emissions USP, the emphasis is now expanding to include the supply chain and materials on which EV batteries and motors rely. The availability of precious metals and rare earths, environmental damage from mining, working conditions in the supply chain and geo-political risks have all worked their way up the EV agenda.

EVs and plug-in hybrids (vehicles which also include a fossil-fuel engine) are set to account for a much larger percentage of the global vehicle fleet: up from around 4 per cent today (or approximately 6 million) to around 12 per cent by 2025, says JP Morgan. In addition, governments worldwide are increasingly looking to ban fossil-fuel-powered vehicles entirely by 2040. The UK ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars comes into force in 2030.

In around two decades, maybe much less, today’s still-niche alternative could well be the mainstream. It follows that the rapidly increasing market share of electric vehicles will place heightened pressure on the resources essential for their production, and exacerbate existing issues surrounding them.

The tech behind the wheels

Modern electric and hybrid-electric vehicles typically store energy in lithium-ion batteries sandwiched beneath the car, which, in simplistic terms, are like scaled up lap-top or smartphone batteries. Scaled up quite a bit, though: for example the battery in the DS3 Crossback e-Tense, a small French hatchback, weighs 300kg – roughly equivalent to four adults. The more miles the manufacturer wants the vehicle to travel on a single charge and the larger the car, the heavier and larger the battery must be.

A sign for an EV recharging point in the New Forest, Hampshire. As the government strives to hit an electric vehicle adoption target, the infrastructure to support the technology is becoming ever more widespread.  

Photograph by Stephen R. Johnson / Alamy

Energy from the battery is fed to electric motors when the driver accelerates, often just one motor on the front or rear axle, and sometimes one on each axle for all-wheel drive, though the new Audi e-Tron S employs three in total: two motors to drive the rear axle, one for the front.

Lithium and cobalt are critical materials in lithium-ion batteries. A precious silvery-white metal, lithium is the lightest hard element in the periodic table and a reactive alkali; EVs account for around a quarter of the substance’s global use, according to a report by Deutsche Bank. But demand is predicted to increase five times from today’s levels, to an estimated 1.5 million metric tonnes by 2025, while EVs are likely to account for some 38% of all lithium consumption.

‘We would basically need to absorb the entire world’s lithium-ion production,’ Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in 2016, on increasing Tesla electric vehicle production from 245,000 cars to half-a-million annually.

Lithium is typically found in compound form with other minerals in igneous rock or oceans and salt lakes, and most commonly sourced from hard-rock mines in Australia, sometimes from clay deposits, or from salt flats or briny lakes within the South American ‘Lithium Triangle' of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.

China Daily, a Chinese state newspaper, reported an estimated five million tonnes of lithium oxide had been discovered in the south-western province of Yunnan in 2019, and acknowledged its strategic importance by revealing China had imported 80 per cent of the lithium it used between 2011 and 2015. Securing a domestic supply helps isolate China from future conflicts, trade wars, currency fluctuations and price increases.

Out of the ground

Mining obviously scars the landscape and is relatively costly. Extraction from salt flats is cheaper and involves water being pumped in to the ground to bring mineral-rich brine to the surface, before it’s left to evaporate in ponds, much like salt. The process requires a large amount of water and can cause toxic leaks.

An electric car charges from an on-street terminal. How much effectively greener electric cars are than fossil-fuel burning vehicles can depend on where the electricity powering them originates, with some countries still heavily reliant on coal-fired power stations for grid electricity generation. 

Photograph by Sebastian Rothe / Alamy

The big problem with cobalt is that around 50 per cent of global deposits are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a politically unstable Central African country in which 80 per cent of the population can’t access electricity.

Cobalt can be a by-product of copper and nickel production but also occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust. But with a convoluted supply chain and some car manufacturers buying in fully assembled electric motors from external suppliers, it can be difficult to ensure the cobalt used is sourced ethically, safely and with due environmental consideration. Worse, artisanal mines, where cobalt is dug from the ground by hand, account for some 20 per cent of cobalt mined in the DRC and has been linked with child labour. No wonder cobalt has earned a reputation as the blood-diamond of the electric-car world. 

Car makers are attempting to tackle this issue, both in reducing their reliance on cobalt, and by establishing best practice. Kia, for instance, has reduced cobalt by 10 per cent in its battery chemistries, while compensating with a 20 per cent increase of the more abundant nickel. Tesla says its Model 3 uses less than 3 per cent cobalt in its Panasonic-supplied batteries.

None of this is a silver bullet: reducing cobalt can reduce the life of the battery cell and increase risk of battery fires, and dust from nickel has been associated with health difficulties in workers involved in its processing.

“Cobalt has earned a reputation as the blood-diamond of the electric-car world. ”

An armed soldier stands beside an electric car in Lualaba, Democratic Republic of Congo, during a 2018 mining conference attended by politicians and industry heads. The country's massive stake in cobalt reserves – and a long-standing instability – has placed pressure on electric car manufacturers to ensure ethical and sustainable sourcing of the materials it uses in vehicle batteries.

Photograph by ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy

Car makers have also signed up to independent initiatives to ensure the ethical extraction of cobalt: BMW, Volvo and Mercedes-parent Daimler have joined the Responsible Cobalt Initiative, which was established by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce for Metals, Minerals and Chemicals Importers, and aims to address social and environmental concerns associated with cobalt.

Solid-state batteries could eliminate the use of cobalt entirely, but mainstream adoption in EVs may be a decade away. ‘In my honest opinion we will not see solid-state batteries [in mass production] before 2030. Perhaps we will see some pilot projects by 2025, but they will have lower performance and higher cost,’ former BMW R&D boss Klaus Fröhlich told National Geographic UK.

Lithium 101
Lithium makes up only 0.002% of the Earth's crust, but has become a major component of technology and industry. Find out about the chemical properties of lithium, how those properties allow lithium to be versatile, and which countries are home to the world's largest supply of lithium.

Even with great reductions of cobalt content, it’s unlikely the substance can be eliminated entirely in the medium term, and demand is likely to remain strong because of the predicted surge in EV production.

As such, and given the DRC’s dominance in the global supply of cobalt, BMW has also acted to guarantee pricing and protect itself from market instability. ‘There will be some kind of war, some kind of fight for raw materials,’ warns Fröhlich. ‘We have secured access to cobalt beyond 2025 to 2035 with mining companies, and we have price corridors already, so we have clear access to that raw material; we have defined with the mining company how they are mining cobalt, both ecologically and also looking at working conditions for people.’

The Atacama Salar, in South America, is home to the world's largest lithium deposit. These are the evaporation ponds of the Sociedad Quimica Mineral de Chile lithium mine or SQM and Sociedad Chilena del Litio.

Photograph by Hemis / Alamy

New mines scheduled to start cobalt extraction in Idaho, Alaska and Australia in 2021 will also reduce car makers’ dependence on the Congo. (Read: The risky plan to haul minerals from a mine in the Alaska wilderness.)

Elusive but critical

Rare earths used in electric motors have also come under scrutiny, if for slightly different reasons than lithium and cobalt. A group of 17 minerals (including the related scandium and yttrium), rare earths are used in the magnets of electric motors to maintain magnetic-properties, even at high operating temperatures. Typically, rare earths neodymium, terbium and dysprosium account for 30 per cent of elements used in EV magnets.

Rare earths are difficult to extract and separate, costly and often if not always found in areas with high geo-political risks. Mining rare earths can also be toxic. Mountain Pass mine in California closed in 2002 after radioactive wastewater was found to have contaminated nearby desert, though the mine reopened in 2017.

In recent years of technological proliferation, The Democratic Republic of Congo has seen demand increase on its natural resources – which include some of the world's most covetable minerals, such as diamonds, colton, gold, cobalt and lithium. 

Photograph by ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy

Despite not being particularly scarce, Toyota predicts the likely increase in demand for rare earths will overtake supply as early as 2025, and China currently has a near-monopoly, accounting for 80 per cent of global supply. Even rare earths mined elsewhere are often shipped to China for processing.

It leaves car makers not only exposed to hazardous mining practices in order to produce cars marketed as environmentally friendly, but also trade wars, sanctions and market fluctuations – all of which has incentivised them to invest in developing alternative technologies. 

Toyota’s new-generation magnets substitute terbium and dysprosium for cheaper, more plentiful lanthanum and cerium, and reduce neodymium content by making each grain of the material a tenth smaller and increasing the distance between each grain by a factor of ten. Magnetic performance has even improved, says Toyota. BMW, meanwhile, has developed electric motors using silicone carbide to reduce its dependence on rare earths.

Car making and car use will always carry a significant environmental footprint. But with a rush for raw materials as EV production exponentially ramps up – and a whiter-than-white emissions-free image – it’s no wonder car manufacturers are racing to make theirs as ethical and environmentally responsible as the absence of a smoking exhaust pipe suggests.

Ben Barry is an automotive journalist based in the UK. 

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