EVs’ Limits to Growth….

8 06 2019

THIS will throw the cat in amongst the pigeons…. some months ago, I downloaded a BBC podcast in which a British scientist claimed there wasn’t enough Cobalt and Lithium on the entire planet for just the UK to convert to EVs. It was on a USB stick that I use to listen to such things in my cars while either driving or working on the house. I promptly lost the darn thing and no amount of googling could find the BBC podcast again…… now this piece comes along in my newsfeed. Might be one of the scientists on the panel, I don’t know……


Leading scientists set out resource challenge of meeting net zero emissions in the UK by 2050

First published 5 June 2019

A letter authored by Natural History Museum Head of Earth Sciences Prof Richard Herrington and fellow expert members of SoS MinErals (an interdisciplinary programme of NERC-EPSRC-Newton-FAPESP funded research) has today been delivered to the Committee on Climate Change

The letter explains that to meet UK electric car targets for 2050 we would need to produce just under two times the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production.

A 20% increase in UK-generated electricity would be required to charge the current 252.5 billion miles to be driven by UK cars.

Last month, the Committee on Climate Change published a report ‘Net Zero: The UK’s Contribution to Stopping Global Warming’ which concluded that ‘net zero is necessary, feasible and cost effective.’ As a major scientific research institution and authority on the natural world, the Natural History Museum supports the pressing need for a major reduction in carbon emissions to address further catastrophic consequences of climate change. Using its scientific expertise and vast collection of geological specimens, the Museum is collaborating with leading researchers to identify resource and environmental implications of the transition to green energy technologies including electric cars.

A letter which outlines these challenges was delivered to Baroness Brown, who chairs the Adaption Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change.

Prof Richard Herrington says:

The urgent need to cut CO2 emissions to secure the future of our planet is clear, but there are huge implications for our natural resources not only to produce green technologies like electric cars but keep them charged.

“Over the next few decades, global supply of raw materials must drastically change to accommodate not just the UK’s transformation to a low carbon economy, but the whole world’s. Our role as scientists is to provide the evidence for how best to move towards a zero-carbon economy – society needs to understand that there is a raw material cost of going green and that both new research and investment is urgently needed for us to evaluate new ways to source these. This may include potentially considering sources much closer to where the metals are to be used.”

The challenges set out in the letter are:

The metal resource needed to make all cars and vans electric by 2050 and all sales to be purely battery electric by 2035. To replace all UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles (not including the LGV and HGV fleets), assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries, would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes copperThis represents, just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry.

The worldwide impact:If this analysis is extrapolated to the currently projected estimate of two billion cars worldwide, based on 2018 figures, annual production would have to increase for neodymium and dysprosium by 70%, copper output would need to more than double and cobalt output would need to increase at least three and a half times for the entire period from now until 2050 to satisfy the demand.

Energy cost of metal production: This choice of vehicle comes with an energy cost too.  Energy costs for cobalt production are estimated at 7000-8000 kWh for every tonne of metal produced and for copper 9000 kWh/t.  The rare-earth energy costs are at least 3350 kWh/t, so for the target of all 31.5 million cars that requires 22.5 TWh of power to produce the new metals for the UK fleet, amounting to 6% of the UK’s current annual electrical usage.  Extrapolated to 2 billion cars worldwide, the energy demand for extracting and processing the metals is almost 4 times the total annual UK electrical output

Energy cost of charging electric cars: There are serious implications for the electrical power generation in the UK needed to recharge these vehicles. Using figures published for current EVs (Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe), driving 252.5 billion miles uses at least 63 TWh of power. This will demand a 20% increase in UK generated electricity. 

Challenges of using ‘green energy’ to power electric cars:If wind farms are chosen to generate the power for the projected two billion cars at UK average usage, this requires the equivalent of a further years’ worth of total global copper supply and 10 years’ worth of global neodymium and dysprosium production to build the windfarms.

Solar power is also problematic – it is also resource hungry; all the photovoltaic systems currently on the market are reliant on one or more raw materials classed as “critical” or “near critical” by the EU and/ or US Department of Energy (high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium) because of their natural scarcity or their recovery as minor-by-products of other commodities. With a capacity factor of only ~10%, the UK would require ~72GW of photovoltaic input to fuel the EV fleet; over five times the current installed capacity. If CdTe-type photovoltaic power is used, that would consume over thirty years of current annual tellurium supply.

Both these wind turbine and solar generation options for the added electrical power generation capacity have substantial demands for steel, aluminium, cement and glass.

The co-signatories, like Prof Herrington are part of SoS MinErals, an interdisciplinary programme of NERC-EPSRC-Newton-FAPESP funded research focusing on the science needed to sustain the security of supply of strategic minerals in a changing environment. This programme falls under NERC’s sustainable use of natural resources (SUNR) strategic theme. They are:

Professor Adrian Boyce, Professor of Applied Geology at The Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre

Paul Lusty, Team Leader for Ore Deposits and Commodities at British Geological Survey

Dr Bramley Murton, Associate Head of Marine Geosciences at the National Oceanography Centre

Dr Jonathan Naden, Science Coordination Team Lead of NERC SoS MinErals Programme, British Geological Society

Professor Stephen Roberts, Professor of Geology, School of Ocean and Earth Science, University of Southampton

Associate Professor Dan Smith, Applied and Environmental Geology, University of Leicester

Professor Frances Wall, Professor of Applied Mineralogy at Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter



21 responses

8 06 2019
Chris Harries

This problem is causing a heated debate in alternative energy circles with some saying the only way forward will be fuel cells rather than batteries. This would link in with the so-called hydrogen economy.

8 06 2019
Jonathan Maddox

There could certainly be a (largish) niche role for electrolytic hydrogen if fossil fuels are ever banned: hydrogen is the source material for fertiliser, for one thing, and can be a feedstock (along with some carbon source such as captured CO₂) for the manufacture of synthetic fuels, plastics, pretty much anything we now use petroleum for. Stored hydrogen, or fuels manufactured from it, it will stand in for fossil fuels to bridge those few but very real still and overcast or snow-bound periods when wind and solar generation are inadequate to meet short-term energy requirements.

8 06 2019
Hugh Spencer

The so called H2 economy is another smoke and mirrors exercise. While electrolysis of water to H2 can be as high as 60%- the conversion of H2 to electricity is about the same – so the round-trip conversion 60% of 60% is 36%
Not a good figure. And this doesn’t include the losses in H2 compression for storage .. which can knock another 10% off. Plus, as it is unlikely that technologies other than Proton Exchange Membranes (PEM) will be used (both for H2 production and fuel cells), and these have lives of about 5 years at best, and use platinum and other rare metals as catalysts (so they are expensive). Not a good future scenario. But hey! – H2 is soooooo sexxxxxy.
We are battling this in the Daintree Coast.

8 06 2019
Jonathan Maddox

Electrolysis is over 80% efficient now and can approach 100%, there isn’t a hard theoretical limit in the way that there is for conversion of fuel to power.

Alkaline electrolysis does not require these short-lived PEMs and can work with impure or salty water.

High energy losses have always been tolerable for the conversion of fossil fuels to electricity or motive power. For most of its life the Hazelwood power station achieved only 28% thermal efficiency converting coal to electricity. Internal combustion engines have never achieved any better than about 45% thermal efficiency, and that only for larger diesel engines (eg marine and rail engines), usually much worse, and once added to a vehicle in typical traffic the losses from idling and braking make the net efficiency well below 20%. If we can live with that now with fossil fuels, we can live with it with hydrogen if it is our best option for a fraction of our energy storage and transportation needs.

8 06 2019
Chris Harries

Yes, but I think safety concerns will be the biggest brake on hydrogen as a major commercial fuel. Not only is the hydrogen molecule explosive when with air, it is so tiny it can even pass through steel, and this poses headaches for safe containment. It’s why researchers have been looking at ammonia as the hydrogen carrier.

Whatever is technically viable, the race against time is what all these ideas are up against.

9 06 2019

Find a way to make PV cells and batteries out of coal and make Qld happy.

8 06 2019
Dr Bob Rich

Naturally, this analysis extrapolates current usage. The first line of action must be to reduce. We cannot, and do not need to, replace all fossil-burning vehicles with electric ones. First we need to redesign society to drastically reduce the need.

8 06 2019
david higham

If we wanted to design a civilisation that was guaranteed to collapse,we would be hard-pressed to come up with a better model than this one.
Some scientifically literate economists have been explaining for many decades that mainstream economics is based on an incorrect understanding of how the physical world works,and how far have they got? Just one example. What is the probability that it is going to change now? Zero.

8 06 2019
Chris Harries

Agree with you both Hugh and Bob. Lest you think I’m advocating. Just reporting.

8 06 2019
Jonathan Maddox

The analysis also refers to current annual production. Not to projected world resources (or even reserves). The authors are advocating the expansion and acceleration of the supply chains for these minerals, not announcing that it will be impossible to obtain them.

8 06 2019
Jonathan Maddox

Thanks for the citation.

I’m looking for the letter mentioned now, but it doesn’t seem to be online,

This is all couched in terms of present world annual production, not about gross limits to resources in situ.

A visit to the website of “SoS MinErals” shows they’re all about how cool the mining of sexy metals is. Committed growthenists the lot of them!

Which means they’re also interested in saying how big the challenge is (I don’t say exaggerating exactly, but they are emphasising).

Truth is, most of the mentioned minerals, while they are commonly used, are not necessities for the technologies in question.

Neodymium and dysprosium are popular for fixed magnets in motors and generators, including EV motors and wind turbine generators. They are not required: induction motors and generators are just as effective and almost as efficient as fixed magnet generators.

Indium, cadmium, selenium, gallium and tellurium are not required for solar. They’re niche thin-film technologies. The mainstream solar technology, over 90% of cells, is silicon, which requires silicon, phosphorus, boron, a reflector/conductor (usually silver). Silver is the most constrained of those resources. R&D efforts have made strides in reducing the amount of silver required, and in demonstrating the possibility of substitution of cheaper metals for silver.

There’s mention of “high-purity silicon” as a “critical resource”, but come on. High purity silicon is a manufactured product. The raw resource is quartz. Quartz is enormously abundant. High purity quartz is not required to make high purity silicon (though I’m sure it helps). The quantity of high purity silicon required per solar cell is being reduced dramatically as cutting and sawing are eliminated from the process. The energy consumption of making very high purity silicon (as used in integrated circuits) is very high using the traditional Siemens process with silane gas, but an emerging alternative industry in “solar grade silicon” is exploring a number of routes to adequate-purity silicon which have a fraction of the energy consumption.

There are plenty of good battery chemistries besides lithium-based ones, though lithium definitely has the edge on weight. Current lithium battery chemistries do rely on large quantities of cobalt, but the amount required is decreasing and there are variants in the offing which do not. Lithium itself is not one of the constrained resources mentioned.

11 06 2019
Jonathan Maddox

I withdraw the last sentence, don’t know what came over me there. Lithium is definitely mentioned!

8 06 2019
9 06 2019
Jonathan Maddox

“There are no substitutes for rare earth minerals and metals” — this may be true for some purposes these materials are used for, but it is not true for most applications. In particular motors, generators and batteries don’t need rare earths. Wind turbines, hydroelectric turbines and solar PV panels don’t need rare earths.

So the claim appearing just above, “To provide most of our power through renewables would take hundreds of times the amount of rare earth metals that we are mining today”, really doesn’t hold either.

Same with magnets, glass, glass polish, LEDs, LCDs … rare earths help with strength, efficiency, brightness, heat resistance and so on, but they aren’t strictly necessary.

I’m sure there are a few applications which genuinely can’t work without rare earth metals, as opposed to merely being less efficient or less colourful without them, but I don’t know what they might be.

Rare earths are just a nice to have. Even if their cost (in energy, in environmental damage, or in geopolitical terms) is deemed too high, then yes, “high tech” can still last.

11 06 2019

Name your “alternative energy” and a mathematician will be able to tell you when we’ll deplete it (at current consumption rates). People just can’t get it through their heads – we aren’t going to continue to run this many people, in this fashion, on this planet. One of those three factors is going to change. Hint – it won’t be the planet as that’s finite.

11 06 2019
david higham

Ted Patzek’s Part two of his take on the Green New Deal.:
There won’t be a twentieth doubling either. One only has to look at the
climatic disruptions occurring in food-producing areas now to see that.

11 06 2019
Jonathan Maddox

Nothing humans do (currently or at any foreseeable time) is going to have any effect on the depletion rate of hydrogen as nuclear fuel in the Sun. Not even the Sun itself is infinite, but at a first approximation, within the timeframe of human lives and indeed the lives of human civilisations, its energy supply is indeed inexhaustible.

11 06 2019

Indeed, most of our energy supply is and always has been solar, though only traded energy is measured in energy stats. If I receive 25 kwh of solar warmth directly through a window, or if sun’s energy is used to grow my vegetables those energy inputs don’t count. Not even solar hot water is measured by utilities. These are not regarded as energy producers but as ways of lowering demand.

The problem arises when we use technologies to capture incident solar energy and turn it into other forms. 70% of incident heat can be captured, but less than 20 percent when sunlight is converted to electricity via pv panels. The eenrgy supply doesn’t run out, for sure, but we do need to calculate longevity of solar equipment and the resources that would be required for 8 billion users, and then balance those resources against the net energy return.

Everyone seems to have a different opinion on that net energy balance. But everyone would happily agree that the primary energy source is, for all intents and purposes, inexhaustible.

12 06 2019

So what? The sun lasts for ever, BFD. Being deliberately obtuse isn’t particularly helpful.

As has been pointed out in these pages numerous times, renewables aren’t. I’m not saying solar power isn’t great – I think it definitely is, but #1 – you won’t run our present global lifestyle on it, or any combination of it, and #2… Ah screw it – just go educate yourself:


12 06 2019

Tom over at do the math calculated that if we continue growing energy consumption at current rate, ANY energy, then (if my memory serves me right) just the waste heat from this consumption would raise the Earth’s temperature to the boiling point of water….. Within ~400 years.

12 06 2019
Jonathan Maddox

Indeed there are many other limits on growth, besides scarcity of terrestrial resources.

The limit we need to worry about most urgently is the limited the ability of the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, biosphere and lithosphere to serve as sinks for emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.

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