The electrification drive will have a major impact on the critical metals supply chain


April 11, 2023

(Nanowerk News) As the electrification of cars accelerates, the world faces an enormous need for essential metals and minerals to enable atmosphere-efficient electric vehicles.

Demand for battery-grade lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and platinum will increase sharply as countries work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through mid-century, but will likely trigger economic drag and supply chain bottlenecks, according to new Cornell research published. in the Nature Communications (“Trade-off between critical metal requirements and transport decarbonization in automotive electrification”).

“The electrification and decarbonization of fuels is critical for adequately reducing greenhouse gas emissions from road transportation,” said Fengqi You, the Roxanne E. and Michael J. Zak Professor in Energy Systems Engineering, senior author of the paper.

“Increasing the efficiency of internal combustion engine vehicles can reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Anda said, “but deep decarbonization of the road transport sector requires electrification and a shift to cleaner energy, such as electricity generated from renewable sources.”

In the new paper, You and his colleagues examined 48 major countries that have committed to play a strong role in electric transport, including the US, China and India.

“Monoline growth in global demand for critical metals through 2050 is the most common trend,” said You. “This is mainly driven by the penetration of the electric vehicle market and the development of battery technology.”

If we reach a scenario where 40% of vehicles are electric by 2050, global lithium demand will increase by 2.909% from 2020 levels. If 100% of vehicles are electric by 2050, the demand for lithium will more than double, to 7.513%.

From 2010 to 2050, in a scenario where all vehicles run on electricity, annual global demand for lithium increases from 747 metric tons to 2.2 million metric tons.

By mid-century, for example, demand for nickel outpaced other important metals, as global demand ranged from 2 million metric tons, where 40% of vehicles are electric, to 5.2 million metric tons where all vehicles were electric.

Annual demand for cobalt (range 0.3 to 0.8 million metric tons) and manganese (range 0.2 to 0.5 million metric tons) will increase by an order of the same magnitude by 2050, according to the paper.

Currently, critical metals and minerals are concentrated in the politically unstable Chile, Congo, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa, according to the World Bank.

“Unstable supply of critical metals and minerals could exacerbate supply risks under soaring demand,” You said.

In the paper, the researchers note caution about the electrification of heavy-duty vehicles, which require more critical metals than other vehicles. Although they only account for between 4% and 11% of the total road fleet in some countries, battery-related critical metals used in heavy-duty electric vehicles will account for 62% of the demand for critical metals in the coming decades.

Among the researchers’ suggestions for managing this demand:

  • Building a circular economy will be indispensable for critical metals if it is to achieve closed loop supply chains in the future. Strategies should be considered to promote recycling efficiency and recovery rates of depleted batteries at an appropriate pace.
  • Countries should adopt policies prioritizing alternative designs for cathode/anode and fuel cell systems (green hydrogen) to reduce reliance on primary critical metals.
  • Decarbonization targets for road transport must be coupled with the deployment of electric vehicles, peak timing and carbon neutrality, and accurate emission budgets.

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