Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Cobalt Production as the Hidden Choke Point on Mass Conversion to Electric Vehicles

Posted on July 27, 2017 by Yves Smith

Marshall Auerback recently introduced us to Jack Lifton, who has written extensively on natural resource issues of supply and demand, focusing on the underlying drivers of economics and human nature. As he puts it, “I am not a ‘peakist’ of supply or demand; I am a peakist on the amount of capital the human race is willing to commit to achieve a goal.”

Jack has a post coming soon on how China is managing the prospect of resource constraints, and in the meantime, sent a short and informative e-mail on the UK’s government’s plan to ban all diesel and petrol vehicles from the roads by 2040. An overview from the BBC:

New diesel and petrol cars and vans will be banned in the UK from 2040 in a bid to tackle air pollution, the government has announced.

Ministers have also unveiled a £255m fund to help councils tackle emissions, including the potential for charging zones for the dirtiest vehicles….

Other points include:
The funding pot will come from changes to tax on diesel vehicles and reprioritising departmental budgets – the exact details will be announced later in the year.
Councils could change road layouts, retrofit public transport, and encourage local people to leave their cars at home.
A Clean Air Fund would allow local authorities to bid for additional money to put in more air quality control measures.
A new Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill will allow the government to require the installation of charge points for electric vehicles at motorway service areas and large fuel retailers.

The Telegraph reports that upgrading the grid to handle the intended shift to electric and hybrid vehicles would be a “tall order” and the UK would wind up increasing its electricity imports from 10% to 30%.

But Jack highlights an even bigger impediment: cobalt production. Via e-mail:

The UK has less than 1% of the world’s population, so let’s assume that it has 1 fossil fuel powered motor vehicle of some kind for every 2 citizens (The ratio in the USA is 1:1). So there would today be 30 million fossil fuel powered privately owned vehicles in the U.K.

The 200+ mile on a single charge range of a Tesla using a 60-80 KWh battery requires 19kg of cobalt.

30 million such vehicles would therefore require 570,000 t of cobalt, which would be immobilized (taken out of the market) for 5-8 years (the currently projected lifetime of the Li/Co type of battery used in the Tesla.

This is nearly 5 times todays annual output of new cobalt production.. So the UK’s less than 1% of the globe’s people would require by 2040 around 20% of the world’s production of new cobalt at today’s production rate to completely eliminate fossil fuel powered cars and replace them with vehicles with a 200+ mile range.

China in the meantime has mandated 5,000,000 EVs to be on the road in their country by 2020! This would require 95,000 t of cobalt immobilized in Chinese batteries within 3 years. This WILL require about 30% of all global new cobalt production between now and the end of 2020.

China has mandated that 30% of its motor vehicle production by 2030 be of the EV type. At today’s level of production this would be 7.5 million vehicles using 142,500 tons of cobalt ANNUALLY from then on.

All of this of course is predicated upon all of the EVs being pure long range types.

But even if only half of them, or less, are of this type the IMMOBILIZATION of the world’s production of cobalt in operational EVs and the absolute limit of the new production of Cobalt, which is produced 95%+ ONLY as a byprodcut of the mining of base metals such as Copper and Nickel, will limit the production of new EVs to a maximum dictated by only what is produced new each year plus what is EVENTUALLY recycled.

The conversion of today’s fleet of 1 billion vehicles totally to pure long range EVs would take ALL of the world’s known resources of cobalt MOST of which are not today recoverable economically, and therefore could not occur in much less than 50-100 years and then ONLY if direct financial profit were not the motive but rather quality of life. This is against the neoliberal agenda.

Politicians simply do not have the intellectual resources to comprehend this problem.

I thought that only American politicians were that short sighted. I see that it is a larger problem.

Unfortunately, the way to achieve the biggest reduction in energy use quickly is conservation, and not new technologies, particularly since creating the new infrastructure has its own energy and resource costs. And contrary to popular opinion, there is a fair bit of low-hanging fruit on the “reduce use” front. But a good bit of that requires changing habits and systems, and people are remarkably resistant.

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