Renewables and EV minerals need a sharp supply increase to meet climate change goals. The IEA warns that critical minerals need a sharp increase in supply to meet the planet’s climate goals. (Image Credit: Alex Eckermann/Unsplash)
The International Energy Agency says that to reach Earth’s climate goals, nickel, cobalt, lithium, copper, and rare earth elements supplies for wind turbine and electric vehicle technologies need to increase over the following decades. Demand outlooks and supply vulnerabilities vary by mineral, but the need for critical minerals could rise by six times by 2040. The IEA also said an onshore wind plant needs “nine times more mineral resources than a similarly-sized gas-fired power plant.” Governments around the world are setting targets to reduce emissions while deploying renewable energy installations. However, this is a challenge for any country needing to implement many changes.
In total, three countries control over 75% of the world’s production of lithium, cobalt, and rare earth elements. The Democratic Republic of Congo produced 70% of cobalt in 2019. Meanwhile, China produced 60% of rare earth elements while refining 50% to 70% of lithium and cobalt and almost 90% of rare earth elements. Australia is the third major producer.
Mining companies made more significant investments in new projects to keep up with higher demand. It takes approximately 16 years for a mine to begin production upon a deposit’s discovery. Existing supply and investment plans are prepared for gradual, insufficient action on climate change.
On average, electric cars need six times more minerals than traditional cars. Batteries rely on lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite. An abundance of copper and aluminum is used in electricity networks. Magnets use rare earth metals, allowing wind turbines to operate. According to the IEA, the annual installation of wind turbines must increase threefold by 2040. Electric car sales must grow 25 times over that same period. Additional investments are also required to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
Even though it’s a huge task, some transitions are already occurring. At the end of April, the U.S. Department of Energy-funded $19 million to 13 projects to produce rare earth elements and critical minerals. There are still obstacles to overcome as demand increases. These include supply chains being complex and transparent, high concentration of minerals in few countries, tougher environmental and social standards from producers, and a decrease in high-quality deposits. The IEA made six recommendations toward mineral security. Those involve scaling up recycling, promoting new technologies, strengthening the supply chains’ resilience and market transparency, and ensuring investments in a new supply of sources.
Tesla acquired a patent application that could change how its batteries are produced, making them cleaner. (Image Credit: Li Xiang/Unsplash)
During Tesla’s Battery Day in September, Elon Musk promised a 50% price reduction on lithium-ion batteries. He said that savings would be sourced from recreating their nickel-metal cathodes production process. The best way to achieve this is by using patent applications from Springwater International, which were bought by Tesla for just $3. One of those applications has a much cleaner approach that involves recirculating the manufactured chemical solution in cathodes for electric vehicle batteries. This innovation eliminates the need for costly water treatment. Drew Baglino, Tesla’s senior vice president of engineering, demonstrated a technique that reuses water and doesn’t generate effluent. It also reduces operational costs by over 75%. Baglino said, “We can also use that same process to directly consume the metal powder coming out of recycled electric vehicle and grid storage batteries.”
Now, Musk is pushing to bring battery production in-house while depending less on Panasonic, LG Chem, and CATL. “Now that we have this process, we’re going to start building our own cathode facility in North America,” said Baglino on Battery Day. Musk also said Tesla’s new battery technologies could provide key benefits, allowing for the production of a $25,000 vehicle. “It will take us probably a year to 18 months to start realizing these advantages, and three years or thereabouts to fully realize them,” Musk said.
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