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Materials in an EV Transition

David Hone's picture
Chief Climate Change Adviser Shell International Ltd.

David Hone serves as the Chief Climate Change Advisor for Royal Dutch Shell. He combines his work with his responsibilities as a board member of the International Emissions Trading Association...

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  • Dec 14, 2016


In thinking about the energy transition, it is easy to look at the status quo and compare it with a clean energy future of renewables, electric vehicles, bio-polymers and recycling then naturally opt for that future. After all, that future looks very attractive. What is often missing in this thought process is the required change in the global stock of materials to get there.

A good example of this comes from looking at the electric vehicle (EV). There are about 2 million globally or 0.2% of the passenger car fleet, but we might imagine a world in just a few decades where all the cars are electric. Some months ago I looked at what a highly accelerated EV transition might look like. It meets the 2020 goal of the Electric Vehicle Initiative of the Clean Energy Ministerial and is compatible with the Paris Agreement in terms of a 1.5-1.8°C goal (i.e. well-below 2°C with a stretch to 1.5°C).  The outcome has internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles largely departing the scene by 2060 and peak passenger vehicle stock of around 1.6 billion, compared with about 1 billion in 2016. This is a faster transition than many other outlooks, but it is a normative scenario designed to show the rate of change required for the Paris outcome to be realized.

EV Stock

Populating the world with 1.6 billion EVs requires building that many batteries and producing the materials that those batteries require. Although we can visualise a world of near 100% recycling of the battery components, the benefits of recycling don’t come until much later, as in a fast growth scenario the number being recycled after 15 years use is far lower than the number being produced. Even in 2060 in my rapid EV scenario, scrappage of EV vehicles still lags EV production in 2060.

The current Tesla Model S has a Nickel-Cobalt-Aluminium Lithium Ion battery. The cathode of the battery consists of about 35 kgs Nickel and 7 kgs Cobalt. While there are many different battery chemistry formulations available, each offering different properties in terms of energy density, charging rate, hysteresis etc., all depend on particular combinations of metals.


In a world in which the current Tesla chemistry dominated, the shift to a 100% EV fleet would require an on-the-road stock build of some 50 million tonnes of Nickel and 10 million tonnes of cobalt. This assumes an eventual global fleet of some 1.6 billion cars, as per my EV scenario. This stock is never recovered unless battery chemistry changes or the EV car population falls.

Current global production of Nickel is around 2 million tonnes per annum, with about 3% of that used for batteries. Nearly 70% of Nickel is used in the stainless-steel industry. Global cobalt production is around 110,000 tons per annum, with nearly two thirds of this coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The remainder comes from about ten other countries.

Given the above, such a stock build would require 25 years of global Nickel production and 91 years of Cobalt production – assuming 100% of production is directed to the new EV battery industry. An accelerated EV scenario requires this level of stock build in under 35 years, which either means a rapid escalation of production in these metals or many different formulations of battery chemistry, but probably both. Competition will also come from grid batteries, home batteries such as the Tesla Powerwall and many other new battery applications, although these may also use alternative chemistry formulations.

The initial proposition of the Tesla chemistry dominating isn’t simple conjecture either. As I reported in my blog from COP22 in Marrakech, Professor Jeff Sachs from the Earth Institute at Columbia University made the strong claim that there would be no further production of internal combustion engine vehicles after 2030. Scaling up battery production so rapidly would likely depend on an existing chemistry; there simply wouldn’t be time to wait for new formulations to be researched, developed and perfected for mass production.

A potential EV transition outcome is one of significantly increased production of certain materials, diversity in battery chemistry, a slower than desired uptake in EVs and perhaps a much smaller EV fleet than anticipated thanks to autonomous driving and vehicle sharing. Nevertheless, some simple calculations quickly show that the transition is likely to be a complex one, with an end result possibly far from the expected.

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douglas card's picture
douglas card on Dec 15, 2016

When the EV’s get much better than ICE’s, which will happen around 2025 at the latest, why would anyone WANT an ICE. Even if its 2030 and a few long haul/heavy duties still use a generator engine, there is still no reason for ICE’s to be on a road after about 2045 or 2050 latest, especially if the temperature continues to rise even at only the current rate. Maybe a 2022 hybrid design could have the battery upgraded to not need the IC generator by around 2030 or 2035.

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Dec 15, 2016

Good batteries with Thermal control that are on all new electrics except the LEAF and are on Plugin hybrids will last for 20 years or more. They can even be used as secondary life Renewable Energy storage. So they won’t create much extra waste.
There are also companies now that recycle Lithium batteries for the nickel in them. It sure beats OIL and NG that cause more hard then good.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Dec 17, 2016

When EV become common, major roads will transmit power to the vehicles as they travel. The UK is already doing a test road. Then you won’t even need a battery, just a super capacitor to get from the highway to home. That’s assuming you commute, and don’t mostly just monitor the factory robots from home.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 17, 2016

Powered roads are expensive, and they have a fatal chicken-and-egg problem: EVs won’t become common unless/until batteries are cost competitive, in which case powered roads won’t be needed.

Powering vehicles via over-head wires is extremely unattractive, for the skyline and for the vehicle:

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 17, 2016

Fifty years ago, we thought that by now, we’d have a permanent base on the Moon, and we’d fly around in super-sonic jets. If there is one thing that is hard to predict, it’s the future.

Maybe future batteries will meet all our transportation needs, and maybe they won’t. That’s why I think it’s import we continue to develop ammonia fuel technology: it’s not as consumer friendly as batteries, but it can do things that batteries can’t.

Ammonia (NH3) is a carbon-free fuel which can be made from any electricity source, water, and air; thus it is infinitely sustainable like hydrogen. But ammonia is a liquid with triple the energy density of 5000 psi hydrogen, and unlike H2, it can be stored in thin-walled low pressure tanks like propane. This means that it can be transported to local retailers by truck (pipelines work, but are not needed). With refrigeration, ammonia can be stored in unpressurized tanks, which means that warehouse-sized tanks can be used for seasonal energy storage, thus helping to balance supply and demand of sustainable electricity production.

Ammonia can be used for certain types of fuel cells, but it can also be used in modified internal combustion engines, with an efficiency much higher than is achieved with gasoline (like diesel). It’s also about the cleanest burning fuel, since there is never any soot or unburned hydrocarbons in the exhaust, and ammonia can be used in exhaust after-treatment to reduce NOx emissions.

Ammonia can replace diesel fuel in applications for which batteries are poorly suited: long haul trucks, buses, trains, construction equipment, farm equipment, and ships.


douglas card's picture
douglas card on Dec 17, 2016

He never mentioned wires. Under road charging is what will happen.

douglas card's picture
douglas card on Dec 17, 2016

Batteries are already good enough and will be better in the VERY near future. Passenger vehicle designs that will be here in the next 3 years will change everything. Ammonia will never be used for transportation since with good batteries the fuel is free.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Dec 18, 2016

Which is more material- and capital-intensive than overhead wires, and much harder to fix when it breaks.

This is not to say that I don’t like it, but I recognize the downsides.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Dec 19, 2016

“why would anyone WANT an ICE.”

Some 16 hours to charge at residences equipped with 6 KW service, and an hour plus at a fast charger on the road, assuming you are first in line. Liquid fuels (hydrocarbons or ammonia) are going to be extraordinarily difficult to abandon entirely for transportation. PHEVs are the most likely long term outcome, I think.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Dec 19, 2016

douglas card's picture
douglas card on Dec 20, 2016

6 hours to charge on a 220, which most already have in the garage. Fast chargers on the road will be 30 minutes by 2018. There won’t be many PHEV’s for sale by 2030. Batteries will be too good.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Dec 20, 2016

Future EVs, that are “much better” than an ICE as you propose, require a 100 kWh battery for 300 miles of range. 16hrs home/1hr road. Chargers that generate more than 10 kW of heat in the battery and power converters while the vehicle is motionless are not viable.

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