Scientists Warn: Battery Components May Become A New Type Of Oil


You may love an electric vehicle for many reasons: some just like the fact that they are so silent, efficient, and green. Others know they are the future of personal mobility. And some defend them just because they may save the planet – as if the car was the evil to defeat. These will end up riding bikes or taking electric buses or trains. For all the others, EVs may ensure a low-carbon society. But only if we do not repeat the same mistakes made with oil. If we do, electric mobility may generate other environmental concerns.

Scientists from many parts of the world united to write a list of recommendations to avoid this. The text is on the latest issue of Science magazine, published this January 3, and it proposes a sustainable way to prevent worsening the greenhouse effect.

As the scientists remember, “the clean energy transition will be significantly mineral intensive,” according to the World Bank. In other words, battery production demands mining. And the critical minerals may come from unstable places, to say the least.

Take cobalt, for example. Most of it – 64 percent – comes from Congo. According to the scientists involved, miners use child and women labor to drop costs down. The picture above shows the conditions in which men, women, and children work there. They may be even worse, but our Congolese readers may tell us what it is really like.

As much as cobalt, other minerals are essential to battery production. If you think new technologies may drive the need for these minerals down, the scientists warn that similar materials will be needed. 

“Even if alternatives are found for one metal, there will be reliance on another as the scope of possibilities is inherently limited by physical and chemical properties of elements.”

Lithium Mining Processes

That is very true regarding lithium, but some researches claim to have got rid of nickel and cobalt altogether, such as the one Nikola said it would present later this year. There are researches with sulfur and cheaper materials that would be much easier to obtain as well. Anyway, we understand the scientists involved want to ensure current battery technology does not turn into a new kind of environmental concern. A new oil, so to speak.

They are right to worry about that since new tech takes time to be implemented. We’ll have to make do with what we have for quite a while. While these are “only projections,” “subject to uncertainty,” this is the scenario the scientists are counting on:

“Between 2015 and 2050, the global EV stock needs to jump from 1.2 million light-duty passenger cars to 965 million passenger cars, battery storage capacity needs to climb from 0.5 gigawatt-hour (GWh) to 12,380 GWh, and the amount of installed solar photovoltaic capacity must rise from 223 GW to more than 7,100 GW.”

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There’s more:

“One recent assessment concluded that expected demand for 14 metals – such as copper, cobalt, nickel, and lithium – central to the manufacturing of renewable energy, EV, fuel cell, and storage technologies will grow substantially in the next few decades. Another study projected increases in demand for materials between 2015 and 2060 of 87,000% for EV batteries, 1,000% for wind power, and 3,000% for solar cells and photovoltaics.”

That will be quite a push. If not adequately handled, it can cause lots of problems. Imagine all the outcomes we could see.

Dramatic sky over two oil pumpjacks in rural Alberta Canada

Some claim the Gulf War and the Iraq War were solely due to oil despite the speech being the defense of democracy. If that is true, why wouldn’t there be a war on African countries rich in resources to defend freedom as well?

If a new dictator decides cobalt is too cheap, he may gather with other cobalt producers to create OCEC – or the Organization of Cobalt Exporting Countries. We could see many new such organizations emerge, such as OLEC (lithium), OBEC (beryllium), and so forth. China would not even need them with rare earth materials. There could be scenarios we are not yet capable of predicting.

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What do the scientists propose to do to ensure the transition to clean mobility is problem-free? The Science text recommends four significant policies.

The one that makes the most sense is including minerals in climate and energy planning. Tracing the origin of minerals is also a great way to protect the people involved in extracting them if price impacts do not destroy these efforts.

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To prevent material dependency on a single country, the scientists propose to explore new resource streams, such as international waters. Some of their colleagues already found significant rare-earth reserves at the Japanese seabed. The text even suggests space mining. That is up to a lot of discussions. Why not keep looking for alternative materials for batteries, for example?

That leads us to the first proposition: “diversify mining enterprises for local ownership and livelihood dividends.” If you don’t know what that means, the authors want governments to stimulate small-scale mining since “it provides livelihood potential for at least 40 million people worldwide, with an additional three to five times more people indirectly supported by the sector.”

piedmont lithium mining

Besides sounding neo-luddist, this proposition will probably favor precisely what the scientists claim to be more concerned about: child and underpaid women labor. If machines help extract more minerals more efficiently and affordably, why stimulate people to work in small-scale mining? To ensure jobs while they stick themselves in the same worrying ground holes the Congo photograph above shows? It makes no sense.

Proposing guidelines for sustainable mining is the right path to avoid that making batteries turns into something nastier than drilling and burning oil. Mixing politics and ideologies with them may jeopardize the whole effort.

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