Will the lithium shortage put the brakes on electric-car plans?

Experts say greater reliance on hybrids, rather than EVs, could be better for planet

A mine worker takes water samples from a brine pool at the Albemarle Corp. Lithium mine in Calama, Antofagasta region, Chile. Photograph: Cristobal Olivares/Bloomberg

A mine worker takes water samples from a brine pool at the Albemarle Corp. Lithium mine in Calama, Antofagasta region, Chile. Photograph: Cristobal Olivares/Bloomberg

 

A global shortage of lithium – the metal mineral crucial for modern rechargeable battery design – may put the brakes on the development of new electric cars.

Market analysts Benchmark Mineral Intelligence (BMI) is predicting an “acute” shortage of lithium from 2022 onwards, according to Reuters. That shortage of supply could derail the stated plans of a majority of Europe’s carmakers as they seek to create all-electric line-ups by the end of the decade.

“Unless we see significant and imminent investment into large, commercially viable lithium deposits, these shortages will extend out to the end of the decade,” said George Miller of BMI. Part of the problem is that although the value of lithium has gone up in recent years, that rise hasn’t yet been enough to trigger major investments in new mining operations.

There are also complications with opening up new mines, not least the environmental impacts of those very mines. Rio Tinto, one of the world’s biggest mining companies, recently announced plans for a vast new lithium mining project near Loznica in Serbia. The announcement caused a storm of protest from locals, who say that Rio Tinto is only paying lip service to concerns over noise and water pollution in the area.

Concerns

With demand for lithium expected to peak above 4.5 million tonnes by 2030, and with 60 per cent of the planet’s lithium reserves currently to be found in China, there are also concerns over the security of supply for Europe, the United States, and the rest of the world. If China decides that it needs to keep hold of its own lithium, what will that mean for the rest?

In that context, some are now starting to suggest that going fully-electric for motoring may not be the best plan, and that it might be better for the planet if we started to spread out that lithium load a little.

Gill Pratt is one such, and is advocating that a greater reliance on hybrids, rather than electric cars, could be a better solution. It must be pointed out that Dr Pratt is the chief executive officer of the Toyota Research Institute, a scientific think-tank funded by Toyota. That may well mean that Dr Pratt has something of an in-built affection for hybrid cars – Toyota certainly does.

Nonetheless, Dr Pratt has said that there may be a better way of doing things, and as well as owning several Toyota vehicles, he’s also – somewhat surprisingly – a Tesla driver. “As a scientist, I know that as with many other natural and man-made systems, a diversity of EV drivetrain types is a better way to prevent climate change than a monoculture of only battery electric vehicles (BEVs)” wrote Dr Pratt in a post.

“I love my Tesla Model X BEV. But commuting 30 miles in it every day – the average US commute – and recharging it every night is wasteful of the carbon-reducing potential of most of its over-300 mile range battery. Most of the time, 90 per cent of its battery cells aren’t doing any good, and would reduce carbon much more if they were harder at work in other types of electrified vehicles, including HEVs (hybrids) or PHEVs (plug-in-hybrids).”

Dr Pratt reckons that there’s too much focus on what might be the best-case scenario, and not enough looking at that variables that affect each powertrain choice. “What is best for the average person is not best for every person. Different people have different needs and different circumstances. In some parts of the world, people have access to highly renewable electric power and BEV rapid charging stations.

“In many other parts of the world, rapid chargers are rare, or electricity is generated with high carbon emissions resulting in BEVs putting more net carbon into the air over their lifetime than plug-in-hybrids and in some cases even hybrids.” he said.

He’s not alone. Mazda, when it launched its new MX-30 battery-powered crossover, was criticised by many (including The Irish Times) for it not having a long enough one-charge range. But Mazda says that was a deliberate choice – rather than adding extra battery for longer trips that most drivers don’t do most of the time, it chose to use a smaller, more affordable, less environmentally-impactful battery.

“Alongside the electrification technologies we are introducing across our range, being a smaller manufacturer we focused all our efforts on creating an electric car that we anticipate will be a second car where the range of our vehicle will meet customers’ needs” said Mazda Europe’s president Yasuhiro Aoyama.

Mazda also points out that the smaller battery is easier to recycle at the end of the car’s life. For longer journeys, Mazda is planning to introduce a “range extender” model, which will use a tiny, ultra-smooth rotary engine mounted under the boot floor. It will never directly power the MX-30’s wheels, but will instead simply switch on to top up the battery’s charge levels as you drive. Initially, of course, it will run on petrol, but Mazda claims that the tiny engine can also run on other liquid fuels, including alcohol (which can be distilled from plants or waste, and turned into biofuel) and even hydrogen.

Hydrogen crops up a lot in this discussion. Again, Toyota is a champion of hydrogen as a vehicle fuel, and it has been occasionally (but not necessarily consistently) joined in that by the likes of Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors and Honda. Hydrogen has a lot of benefits, not least that it’s the most abundant element in the universe, that its emissions are only water (when you pass hydrogen through a fuel cell it combines with oxygen to make H2O, as well as generating an electric current), and that a hydrogen tank takes minutes to refill, rather than hours to charge.

Expensive

The downside is that it’s currently expensive to make, to store, to transport, and to distribute. Ireland has no hydrogen fuel stations, and they’re pretty rare even in supposedly-hydrogen friendly markets such as Germany. Electric car advocates say that hydrogen is too inefficient, and requires too much energy input to make (which would have to come from renewable energy sources if it’s to be sufficiently “clean”). Elon Musk, he of Tesla fame, has described hydrogen power as “stupid”.

However, a shortage of lithium – if it persists – could turn that equation around. If we physically can’t make enough batteries to go around, then we will have to find other solutions to decarbonising transport. Large-scale hydrogen production, using renewable energy, could well then start to look tempting, not least because as well as making fuel for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, hydrogen can also be combined – potentially – with carbon from the atmosphere to make a simple hydrocarbon liquid. Which is basically petrol, but carbon-neutral petrol.

Such concepts – a global hydrogen fuelling network and petrol made from carbon dioxide in the air – sound far-fetched, but then so too, not so long ago, did electric cars with a 500km range.

“The atmosphere accumulates carbon over long periods of time, so the carbon we emit now will be with us for a century or more. Our responsibility is clear: We must eliminate carbon emissions as soon as possible” said Dr Pratt.

“As a scientist, I know that, to paraphrase Einstein, the solution of how to eliminate carbon as soon as possible should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. As a result, I believe, as does Toyota, that it would be a tremendous mistake for governments around the world to prescribe narrow solutions like insisting that all vehicles be BEVs. Instead, the better solution is to allow manufacturers to innovate across a diversity of drivetrains and drivers to choose the low-carbon drivetrain that suits their circumstances best. Carbon is the enemy, not internal combustion engines. In many parts of the world for some time to come, PHEVs and even HEVs will generate comparable or less lifetime carbon than BEVs.”

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