Some environmentalists often imaginethe future in which electric cars take oil companies out of business. Firms stop pumping carcinogens into the ground in order to break up a layer of hard shale rocks that hide black gold, and never extract oil in the ocean depths, allowing sticky black mucus to leak to the surface. To get to this future — when we no longer need to extract oil from underground — companies will have to extract a lot of metal instead. Will it be worse or better?
How electromobiles are more ecological than usual ones?
Like solar panels and wind turbines,Batteries for electric vehicles are made of the most inaccessible metals on earth - dysprosium, neodymium, manganese, cobalt and lithium. Yes, the list of these materials sounds like Tony Stark's shopping list. Manufacturers of electric vehicles will need much more of these metals if they want to build enough electric vehicles to stop global warming to 1.5 degrees, according to the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement.
If countries took the radical measures necessary to achieve this goal - an incredibly optimistic scenario - the demand for cobalt and lithium would exceed the current supply by 2022-2023.
"Today we are producing relatively smallthe amount of lithium. In 2023, we will use more for electric vehicle batteries and storage, ”says Elsa Dominisch, senior research consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Development at the University of Technology Sydney. She explains that companies will have to offer more cobalt and lithium to meet growing demand for electric cars. In order not to increase the production of these metals, companies can dispose of old batteries of electric vehicles.
“We could extract about 95% lithium fromrecycled materials using already existing technologies, but usually decide not to do this, ”says Dominish. “At present, only a small percentage is being recovered, and processors extract only more expensive metals, such as cobalt and nickel.
Since the batteries serve no more than tenyears, spent batteries can become a rich source of lithium. This is important because the next generation of electric vehicles will likely be equipped with lithium-sulfur batteries, which will use more lithium than lithium-ion batteries - the standard for the current industry.
Dominis and her colleagues modeled howaggressive processing will correct the demand for mined cobalt and nickel. As expected, recycling will drastically reduce the need to extract these metals. If companies recycle old batteries and put lithium-sulfur batteries into service, this will lead to a decrease in demand for mined cobalt, which is not required in lithium-sulfur batteries, but will lead to an increase in demand for mined lithium.
Recycling can take several forms. On the one hand, companies can take old batteries for electric vehicles that are no longer able to accumulate as much energy as they used to, and use them as home batteries that accumulate electricity generated by solar panels on the roof. On the other hand, you can simply extract metals from old batteries and use them to make new ones. This is already done with cobalt, but not with lithium.
More recycling will mean less production, andthis is good, because mining is fraught with risks. Currently, most of the world's cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where individual miners, tens of thousands of whom are children, collect about 20% of the total cobalt. These miners can spend the whole day collecting cobalt by hand in order to sell their share to a merchant for a dollar or two.
These miners, as a rule, have no protectiveequipment, such as gloves and masks, so they constantly inhale cobalt dust, which can be dangerous to the lungs. The extraction of lithium is not the case, but also has risks. In the salt marshes of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, miners draw lithium-rich water from deep underground sources and pour it into shallow ponds, where water evaporates, leaving behind lithium. At the same time, mining companies use groundwater, which is extremely necessary in the arid desert region.
Recycling old batteries forelectric vehicles could limit the companies' need for destructive mining, but recycling itself will not be a panacea. You still have to extract a lot of cobalt, lithium and other metals.
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