Charging ahead: decarbonisation and the rise in demand for metals to build electric Andrew Bloodworth

Chevrolet Bolt EV (Andrew Bloodworth)
Driven by concerns about climate change, air pollution and energy security the world is undergoing a fundamental transition towards a low carbon future. Decarbonisation of transport is key to this transition and many nations are actively promoting the change from internal-combustion engine (ICE) powertrains to electric vehicles (EV). Many countries, including the UK, have ambitious plans for all new vehicles to be zero emission by 2050 or earlier. In 2018 the UK Industrial Strategy and Automotive Sector Deal outlined the support that the government will make available for development of the EV sector in the UK. However, this strategy so far fails to consider future demand for raw materials and how supplies will be secured.

In order to function EVs require a powertrain (electric motor) and a means of storing energy (a lithium-ion battery (LIB) or hydrogen fuel cell). The raw materials needed for these devices are very different to those used in conventional ICE vehicles. Electric motors utilise high-strength magnets made from rare earth elements (REE) such as neodymium and dysprosium. LIBs require several raw materials including lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and graphite. Hydrogen fuel cells require platinum group metals (PGM). The quantities of these materials used are substantial: a typical family-size EV (such as a Chevrolet Bolt)  has a battery which contains about 10 kg lithium, 24 kg nickel and 63 kg graphite and a motor with about 1 kg of neodymium and dysprosium. An EV will contain about 80 per cent more copper than the equivalent ICE vehicle. In addition substantial amounts of copper, cobalt, nickel and other metals will be required for power generation, grid storage and charging infrastructure.

Lithium battery pack from a Nissan Leaf EV (Evi Petavratzi/ Gus Gunn)
Since 2010 global EV sales have grown rapidly, led by China and followed, at some distance, by USA, Europe and Japan. However, the EC predicts that the European battery market could be worth up to EUR 250 billion from 2025 onwards . Future growth is difficult to quantify, but the International Energy Agency forecasts  that the global EV stock might grow from 3 million cars in 2017 to 220 million by 2030. This growth will create substantial additional demand for the raw material needed in powertrains and energy storage systems. Some of these materials (notably cobalt, REE and PGM) are classified as ‘critical’ . Global production of some, such as lithium and cobalt, will have to grow by orders of magnitude in order to satisfy the predicted growth in EV manufacturing.

Sampling from cobalt-bearing crust on the Tropic Seamount,
eastern Atlantic Ocean (Pierre Josso/ Paul Lusty)
All these materials are ultimately derived from the Earth’s crust and without them there would be no manufacturing and no recycling. In order to establish and maintain a UK EV industry that includes the manufacture of batteries and powertrains it is essential to have timely and responsibly-sourced long-term supplies of the essential raw materials. Given the current uncertainties related to global trade and that many countries have similar aims, the UK must ensure material supply security to implement the low carbon transition and to meet climate change and air pollution targets.

BGS is building a strong UK and international reputation in this rapidly-evolving area. Working with academic and industry partners we have won a number of substantial research grants related to critical raw materials from NERC, EU H2020 and InnovateUK. BGS is also active in providing technical advice on this topic to inform policy makers in the UK (BEIS, GO-Science, Cabinet Office, DIT), as well as the European Commission.

BGS science capabilities in this topic area include:
BGS-led field team investigating rare earths associated with alkaline
magmatic rocks, northern Madagascar (Kathryn Goodenough)
  1. Understanding the origin, transport and concentration of critical metals in the continental crust and deep ocean;
  2. Ecology of metals: global production, stocks and flows of minerals and metals (primary Earth resources and secondary recycled resources), the supply chain for metals and circular economy, supply security and minerals intelligence;
  3. Official Development Assistance: mineral resource governance and capacity-building, artisanal and small-scale mining.
For more information contact Andrew Bloodworth