Metal shortages could put the brakes on electrification

May 31, 2023

(Nanowerk News) Electrification and digitization are leading to a steady increase in the demand for critical metals* in the EU vehicle fleet. In addition, only a small percentage of metals are currently recycled from vehicles at the end of their useful life. Highly sought metals, such as dysprosium, neodymium, manganese and niobium, are of great economic importance to the EU, while their supply is limited and it will take time for raw material production to increase. Therefore, our increasing dependence on them is problematic for several reasons.

“The European Union is heavily dependent on imports of this metal because extraction is concentrated in several countries such as China, South Africa and Brazil. Lack of availability is an economic and environmental concern for the EU, and risks delaying the transition to electric cars and green technologies. In addition, because many of these metals are scarce, we also risk making access to them difficult for future generations if we are unable to use what is already in circulation,” said Maria Ljunggren, Associate Professor in Sustainable Materials Management at Chalmers University of Technology.

The situation is serious, but the Swedish savings offer hope

Ljunggren pointed out that the serious situation affecting Europe’s strategic and critical raw materials was underlined deeply Critical Raw Materials Act recently proposed by the European Commission. The law emphasizes the need to enhance cooperation with reliable external trading partners and for member countries to increase the recycling of strategically important raw materials. It also emphasizes the importance of European countries exploring their own geological resources.

In Sweden, state-owned mining company LKAB reported a significant rare earth deposit at Kiruna earlier in the year. The successful exploration allowed the company to identify a mineral resource of over one million tons of oxide – which they now describe as the largest known deposit of its kind in Europe.

“This is very exciting, especially the discovery of neodymium which is used among other things in magnets in electric motors. Hopefully, this will help us reduce our dependency on imports in the long run,” he said.

Substantial increase in the use of critical metals

Together with the Swiss Federal Laboratory for Materials Science and Technology, EMPA, Ljunggren has surveyed metals currently used in European vehicle fleets. The assignment came from the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC), and has resulted in a wide Raw Materials in Vehicles database indicating the presence of metals over time in new vehicles, used vehicles, and recycled vehicles.

The survey, conducted since 2006, shows that the proportion of critical metals has increased significantly in vehicles, a development the researchers believe will continue. Some of the rare earth elements are among the metals that have experienced the greatest increase.

“Neodymium and dysprosium usage had increased by about 400 and 1,700 percent respectively in new cars over the period, and this was even before electrification was rolled out. Gold and silver, which are not listed as critical metals but have great economic value, increased by about 80 percent,” said Ljunggren.

The idea behind this survey and database is to provide decision makers, companies and organizations with an evidence base to support a more sustainable use of EU critical metals. The main challenge is that these materials, which are found in very small concentrations in every car, are difficult to recycle economically.

Recycling fails to meet requirements

“If recycling is to increase, cars need to be designed so that these metals can be recovered, while incentives and flexible processes for more recycling need to be put in place. But that is not the current reality”, said Ljunggren, who stressed that various measures were needed to deal with the situation.

“It is important to increase recycling. At the same time, it is clear that increased recycling alone cannot meet future requirements, simply because the demand for critical metals in new cars is increasing rapidly. Therefore there needs to be a greater focus on how we can replace these metals with other materials. However in the short term it will be necessary to increase extraction in the mines if electrification cannot be contained”, he said.

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