Electric vehicles will need more metals instead of oil. But there is good news: they can be recycled

Some environmentalists often imagine a future in which electric cars withdrawal of the oil companies out of business. Firms cease to pump carcinogens into the ground in order to break the solid layer of shale rock that hides the oil reserves will never produce oil in the deep ocean, allowing the sticky black goo to seep to the surface. To get to this future — when we will no longer need to extract oil from under the ground — instead, companies will have to produce a lot of metal. It will be worse or better?

As far as electric cars are greener than usual?

Like solar panels and wind turbines, batteries for electric vehicles are manufactured from the most difficult metals on Earth — dysprosium, neodymium, manganese, cobalt and lithium. Yes, the list of these materials sounds like a shopping list of Tony stark. Manufacturers of electric cars need much more of these metals if they want to build enough electric cars to stop global warming to 1.5 degrees, according to the objectives of the Paris climate agreement.

If countries have taken drastic measures needed to achieve this goal is incredibly optimistic scenario — the demand for cobalt and lithium would exceed current proposal to 2022-2023 year.

“Today, we produce a relatively small amount of lithium. In 2023 we will use more battery electric vehicles and storage,” says Elsa Dominish, senior research consultant Institute for sustainable development University of Technology Sydney. She explains that companies will have to offer more of cobalt and lithium to meet the growing demand for electric vehicles. In order not to increase the production volumes of these metals, the company can dispose of old batteries of electric vehicles.

“We could extract approximately 95% of lithium from secondary raw materials using existing technologies, but usually decide not to do it,” says Dominic. “Currently recovers only a small percentage, and refiners extract only the more expensive metals such as cobalt and Nickel”.

Since the batteries are not more than ten years, waste batteries can be a rich source of lithium. This is important because the next generation of electric vehicles will likely be equipped with lithium-sulfur batteries, which will use more lithium than lithium-ion batteries are the current standard for the industry.

Dominic and her colleagues modeled how aggressive processing will adjust the demand for extracted cobalt and Nickel. As expected, processing will radically reduce the need for extraction of these metals. If the company will recycle your old battery and take the lithium-sulfur battery into service, it will lead to a decline in demand for mined cobalt, which is not required in lithium-sulfur batteries, however, will lead to higher demand for mined lithium.

Processing can take several types. On the one hand, companies can take old batteries for electric vehicles, which is not able to store as much energy as before, and use them as domestic battery accumulating electricity generated by the solar panels on the roof. On the other hand, you can just extract the metals from old batteries and use them to produce new. Already do with cobalt, but not with lithium.

More recycling will mean less mining, and that’s good, because the extraction is fraught with risks. Currently most of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where individual miners, tens of thousands of them children, gather about 20% of cobalt. These miners can collect cobalt hands, to then sell their share to a vendor for a dollar or two.

These miners, as a rule, no protective equipment such as gloves and masks, so they are constantly inhaling cobalt dust, which can be harmful to the lungs. Mining lithium is not the case, but also has risks. On the salt marshes of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, the miners draw water, rich in lithium, from deep underground sources and put it in shallow ponds where the water evaporates, leaving behind lithium. While mining companies use groundwater is essential in arid desert region.

Recycling old rechargeable batteries for electric cars could limit the need for companies destructive mining, but by itself, recycling is not a panacea. Still have to get a lot of cobalt, lithium and other metals.

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