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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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The Skeleton In The Electric Car Closet

The Skeleton In The Electric Car Closet

The number of electric vehicles is increasing rapidly, but at great human cost.

You probably have not heard anything other than praise for electric cars in the mainstream media. They are sexy and environmentally friendly too, we are told. The first may be true, but not the latter. Batteries are not good for the environment, and their raw materials are mined at the expense of human health.

Rare Earth Metals

Rare earth metals are needed to make efficient batteries. The minerals are found in low densities in the earth’s crust, and tons of rock need to be mined, filtered, and transported in order to find the amount required to make a vehicle battery. Typically, the energy needed to create them exceeds the amount that they store during their lifetime. That is why they are so expensive.


Mining for cobalt in the Congo.

Cobalt is one of the ingredients needed to make batteries. In 2018, 70% of this mineral came from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa. The metal is mined by poor Congolese people who work under conditions that would have been unthinkable and highly illegal in any Western country. Accidents are common, sometimes killing the miners.

Little attention is given to those who toil to make wealthy Western environmentalists happy. It is not uncommon for green ideals to be at odds with human health. DDT is a miracle chemical that was used to eradicate malaria in America and Europe, but environmentalists were able to de facto ban it in the 1970s, resulting in tens of millions of unnecessary deaths in developing nations.

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Batteries, mine production, lithium and the “cobalt crunch”

Batteries, mine production, lithium and the “cobalt crunch”

Growth in Li-ion batteries depends on a number of imponderables, such as how rapidly the world converts to electric vehicles, how quickly battery manufacturing capacity can be ramped up and where the electricity to power millions of EVs will come from. This post ignores these issues, concentrating instead on the question of whether the mining sector can increase production of the metals and minerals needed to support a high-battery-growth scenario without running out of reserves. The data are not good enough to reach a firm conclusion, but the main uncertainty seems to be whether cobalt production from the Congo, which presently supplies over half of global demand, can be relied on. Lithium and cobalt reserves will not be exhausted in the time frame considered (out to 2030) but will be close to it if no additional reserves are discovered. (Inset, lithium mine in Chile).

Unless otherwise specified the data used in this post are from the following three sources:

The 2018 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, which provides annual production and price data for lithium, cobalt, graphite and rare earths since 1995 but reserve data for 2017 only.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) annual Mineral Commodity Surveys, which provide annual production and reserve data for cobalt since 1990 but incomplete data for lithium (US production is excluded) and no price data.

The British Geological Survey (BGS), which provides annual production data for all metals since 1970 but no data on reserves or prices.

Opinion is pretty much unanimous in projecting rapid growth in Li-ion batteries in coming years:

The Apricum Group predicts a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22% through 2025: Global battery demand will increase fivefold from ~100 GWh today to ~500 GWh by 2025.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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