There are many problems with the rapid development of electric vehicles: Electrical supply; sufficient charging outlets; life-spans of batteries and the cost of their replacement; potential world shortage of lithium, which is essential for battery cathodes; and disposal of huge numbers of large vehicle batteries when their life is over, to name just a few. I remember a recent report that said current electrical supply in most developed countries means only 2 people on your block can charge their vehicle at the same time – a serious problem no-one seems to be addressing.
There has been significant press about the availability of lithium. Up to 80 percent of the world’s lithium reserves are found in salt flats within the high Andean wetlands of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, in an area known as the Altiplano. This region, nicknamed “the lithium triangle,” is estimated to contain more than 100 salt flats rich with lithium brine, salinated groundwater filled with dissolved lithium. From this brine, lithium carbonate is extracted as a salt. A huge increase in mining operations there will be an environmental disaster. The other 20% of lithium supply comes from China and Australia
The current numbers of electric vehicles on the road is projected to be 40 million by the end of this year. However this is only 3% of all vehicles in the world. Our “mad” rush to vehicle electrification is justified from an environmental and global warming point of views, but where is all that required electrical supply, infrastructure and lithium going to come from?
There is another problem, which has received little attention in our headlong love-affair with electric vehicles, and that is graphite. Current battery technology requires an anode and a cathode to work – the two poles of all current batteries. Lithium cathodes have received a lot of attention but anodes are necessary as well, and the world’s supply of graphite, the current material used for anodes, is also limited.
We all know about graphite, at least those of us who grew up using “lead” pencils. However, there are two sources of graphite currently used by industries. I should add that graphite is used in many more industries than just battery production.
One graphite source is mining, and the other is a major energy consuming and pollution rich process which involves roasting “needle-coke”, itself a by-product of coal-processing and petrochemical plants – both of which not exactly environmentally-friendly operations. At present, most graphite comes from the “needle-coke” process.
Even worse, the graphite needed for the lithium-ion batteries of electric vehicles has to be 99.95% pure in order to work efficiently. The process of purification of natural or synthetic (needle-coke) lithium requires the use hydrofluoric acid which is highly corrosive. Also, from a political point of view, China currently commands 90% of this purification supply chain, which is potentially very dangerous.
One could suggest that, if electric vehicles are the answer to global warming issues, how do we justify major increases in pollution to produce the graphite they need for their batteries, and the political risk of relying on a supply chain from China?
All of this, obviously, is a challenge to find alternative battery designs that eliminate all, or most, of the above problems. Without those technological advances/revolutions in battery design, the whole headlong rush into electrical vehicles is doomed.
There is hope. Companies in Sweden, Australia, Canada and the U.S., among others, are working to reduce the pollution caused by the purification of graphite. That may solve the pollution issue but it doesn’t address the huge increases in graphite supply that will be needed. Researchers have to be, and are, investigating the use of other materials for use as anodes.
The dilemma is a matter of timing. We are quite good at finding new technologies when we absolutely need to; the problems of lithium, graphite and electrical supply will almost certainly be solved at some point. However, our booming demand for electrical vehicle production, may well create more pollution and global warming in the interim than it solves.
Should we slow down a little, and think this process through a little more carefully? A nice idea, but we have a very bad history of not doing this, and ignoring consequences, when we get carried away with new ideas.