As you may well know, many countries (including the UK) have pledged to replace as many cars on the road as possible with EVs. This is all a part of a much bigger plan to create zero carbon economies by 2050. Whilst this aim is all well and good, there are some serious potential consequences starting to emerge regarding a wholesale transfer over to EVs, particularly battery electric vehicles (BEVs).
Assuming that we stick to the current '811' technology, to create batteries for electric cars a decent amount of cobalt is required, as well as nickel, neodymium and manganese. These are all natural elements that require an awful lot of mining and by their nature are not the most easily found in the world. Large amounts of lithium and copper are also required to create EV batteries, something which also makes a noticeable impact on the world's resources.
A team of eight scientists, including the Head of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum, are very concerned about this and have written to the Comittee of Climate Change in the UK expressing those concerns. They estimate that in order to fulfil at least the UK's desire to supercharge electrification, they would need almost the total amount of neodymium that's currently demanded by the entire world, as well as at least half the world's current demand for copper and at least three quarters of the world's current demand for lithium.
In short, what that means is global production for a lot of these materials is going to need to at least double and fast, let alone the increased toll on the national grid that it'll take to be able to support the infrastructure and power required to charge millions of electric cars at any one time. When you look at things this way, an electrified future starts to get less hopeful indeed.
As Professor Richard Herrington, the aforementioned resident staff member of the Natural History Museum, states; "The urgent need to cut CO2 emissions to secure the future of our planet is clear, but there are huge implications for our natural resources... Our role as scientists is to provide the evidence for how best to move towards a zero-carbon economy – society needs to understand that there is a raw material cost of going green."
A Congolese cobalt mine - the 'dirty secret' of our electrified future?
Cobalt mining is also mired in ethical problems due to where the majority of it is done. At least 60% of the world's cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where politics is incredibly unstable and workers' rights are basically non-existent. It's not been unknown for cobalt to be dug out of the ground by hand and be mined by child workers. As a result, cobalt has become somewhat of a 'dirty secret' in the production of EVs and some manufacturers such as BMW, Kia and Tesla are actively looking into ways to avoid using DRC-sourced cobalt or to even stop using cobalt altogether in their batteries.
So, what's the solution to lessening the potential impact here? It could be to invest more money in the development of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs). FCVs require no batteries, as the electricity comes from a fuel cell generator run on hydrogen. Hydrogen can be produced sustainably by renewable power. Most importantly, though, Hydrogen could be a more efficient way to power bigger vehicles such as trains, ships and aircraft - rechargable batteries for vehicles that big could end up being very big, very heavy and not as energy-efficient as a fuel cell.
I guess the perennial thing is that we won't see the real impacts until a couple of decades in the future. Whilst that may be a bit scary, we may have no other choice.