Cobalt Production as the Hidden Choke Point on Mass Conversion to Electric Vehicles

Marshall Auerback recently introduced us to Jack Lifton, who has written extensively on natural resource issues of supply and demand, focusing on the underlying drivers of economics and human nature. As he puts it, “I am not a ‘peakist’ of supply or demand; I am a peakist on the amount of capital the human race is willing to commit to achieve a goal.”

Jack has a post coming soon on how China is managing the prospect of resource constraints, and in the meantime, sent a short and informative e-mail on the UK’s government’s plan to ban all diesel and petrol vehicles from the roads by 2040. An overview from the BBC:

New diesel and petrol cars and vans will be banned in the UK from 2040 in a bid to tackle air pollution, the government has announced.

Ministers have also unveiled a £255m fund to help councils tackle emissions, including the potential for charging zones for the dirtiest vehicles….

Other points include:

  • The funding pot will come from changes to tax on diesel vehicles and reprioritising departmental budgets – the exact details will be announced later in the year.

  • Councils could change road layouts, retrofit public transport, and encourage local people to leave their cars at home.

  • A Clean Air Fund would allow local authorities to bid for additional money to put in more air quality control measures.

  • A new Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill will allow the government to require the installation of charge points for electric vehicles at motorway service areas and large fuel retailers.

The Telegraph reports that upgrading the grid to handle the intended shift to electric and hybrid vehicles would be a “tall order” and the UK would wind up increasing its electricity imports from 10% to 30%.

But Jack highlights an even bigger impediment: cobalt production. Via e-mail:

The UK has less than 1% of the world’s population, so let’s assume that it has 1 fossil fuel powered motor vehicle of some kind for every 2 citizens (The ratio in the USA is 1:1). So there would today be 30 million fossil fuel powered privately owned vehicles in the U.K.

The 200+ mile on a single charge range of a Tesla using a 60-80 KWh battery requires 19kg of cobalt.

30 million such vehicles would therefore require 570,000 t of cobalt, which would be immobilized (taken out of the market) for 5-8 years (the currently projected lifetime of the Li/Co type of battery used in the Tesla.

This is nearly 5 times todays annual output of new cobalt production.. So the UK’s less than 1% of the globe’s people would require by 2040 around 20% of the world’s production of new cobalt at today’s production rate to completely eliminate fossil fuel powered cars and replace them with vehicles with a 200+ mile range.

China in the meantime has mandated 5,000,000 EVs to be on the road in their country by 2020! This would require 95,000 t of cobalt immobilized in Chinese batteries within 3 years. This WILL require about 30% of all global new cobalt production between now and the end of 2020.

China has mandated that 30% of its motor vehicle production by 2030 be of the EV type. At today’s level of production this would be 7.5 million vehicles using 142,500 tons of cobalt ANNUALLY from then on.

All of this of course is predicated upon all of the EVs being pure long range types.

But even if only half of them, or less, are of this type the IMMOBILIZATION of the world’s production of cobalt in operational EVs and the absolute limit of the new production of Cobalt, which is produced 95%+ ONLY as a byprodcut of the mining of base metals such as Copper and Nickel, will limit the production of new EVs to a maximum dictated by only what is produced new each year plus what is EVENTUALLY recycled.

The conversion of today’s fleet of 1 billion vehicles totally to pure long range EVs would take ALL of the world’s known resources of cobalt MOST of which are not today recoverable economically, and therefore could not occur in much less than 50-100 years and then ONLY if direct financial profit were not the motive but rather quality of life. This is against the neoliberal agenda.

Politicians simply do not have the intellectual resources to comprehend this problem.

I thought that only American politicians were that short sighted. I see that it is a larger problem.

Unfortunately, the way to achieve the biggest reduction in energy use quickly is conservation, and not new technologies, particularly since creating the new infrastructure has its own energy and resource costs. And contrary to popular opinion, there is a fair bit of low-hanging fruit on the “reduce use” front. But a good bit of that requires changing habits and systems, and people are remarkably resistant.

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  1. Louis Fyne

    and i am 99.99% certain that the cobalt from the Congo will be mined to first world environmental, labor and ethical standards.

    fracking doesn’t look too bad, (yes that is near heresy to think here)

    1. Ned

      Gee, I wonder if we need as a country to fund rebel groups in the Congo who demand freedom and then invite us in to liberate them.

      Also, Evo Morales’ declaration of independence from the IMF and other groups means that we will have to help fight for freedom in Bolivia since they control one of the largest lithium deposits.

      1. d

        unless of course we change the batteries themselves. which is happening already, since lithium ion batteries have limits on them. never mind that lithium is not every where

    2. DA

      No; fracking does indeed look very bad – catastrophically bad:

      “Last October, Howarth published a scientific paper explaining how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate for greenhouse gas emissions may be in error by a wide margin due to its computations accounting for natural gas, the so-called “bridge” fuel – a fuel considered transitional from full carbon energy like coal to renewable energy. “Methane emissions from the U.S. are much larger than is recognized by the EPA, according to a large and growing body of evidence,” he told the scientists.

      ““The agency relies on data that are questionable due to misuse of monitoring equipment, according to papers published last year,” he said. “Reliable data from satellite and airplane surveys show much higher emissions and indicate that global increases in methane in the atmosphere over the last decade may well be the result of increased emissions from the United States.”

      “Further, the EPA underestimates the importance of methane emissions on global warming, since they only compare methane and carbon dioxide for 100 years following emissions. This greatly discounts the importance of methane and is contrary to the guidance given by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. A better approach is to compare to the two greenhouse gases on the time scale of 10 to 20 years following emission, he said.”

  2. Ranger Rick

    It’s always been cobalt. While people fretted and protested about “blood diamonds” the “conflict minerals” market has been funding warlords for decades — and it all revolves around the cobalt trade.

    The future battleground of the world economy is going to be over the mines of Africa unless we can come up with cobalt from elsewhere. Whoever controls that cobalt is going to control electronics production for the next 30 years.

  3. Hayek's Heelbiter

    As a U.K. resident:

    One point – except for London itself, since privatization and the scorched earth destruction of local railways by the Beeching Axe, rail transportation here is ludicrously overpriced, three or four times to equivalent distances on the Continent, on slow and mediocre rolling stock, and particularly in the South, strike-prone scheudules that makes travelling in India look positively organized.

    In fact see:

    Student flies from Newcastle to London via Spain as it was cheaper than the train


    A train from Sheffield to Essex cost £50… So I flew home via BERLIN…

    To think that Brits are going to give up the convenience and lower cost of driving in favor of the extortionate, abusive experience of travelling by rail is both the height of, and totally typical ostrich-clueless, folly of the policymakers who dare not step out of the comfort of their London bubble.

  4. yumaloper

    Conflict over Cobalt has occurred already in history. Remember when Castro sent troops to help Angola, starting with the Shaba province? Guess where a huge cobalt mine is….

    1. Bill Smith

      I don;t think the world cared cared about the Angolan cobalt mine after it was taken out of production. But later after the mine was out of production and the Benguela railway to Zaire & Zambia (big suppliers of cobalt) had been cut and the world came out of a recession there were issues. This was 1979. This was reversed by 1982 with another recession.

      Anyone know of some group that keeps an updated input output tables of this kind of information?

  5. MoiAussie

    30 million such vehicles would therefore require 570,000 t of cobalt, which would be immobilized (taken out of the market) for 5-8 years (the currently projected lifetime of the Li/Co type of battery used in the Tesla.

    I’m not up-to-speed on the latest technology in EV motors, but I wouldn’t be surprised if cobalt is also needed there. The major use however is in high temperature alloys in jet engine turbines.

    On the upside, this article makes the mistake of assuming that today’s dominant battery technology will be used in tomorrow’s cars. EV batteries will have changed significantly well before the UK 2040 deadline rolls around.

    1. Jack Lifton

      Dear MoiAussie,

      Over the last 175 years, or so, we have been through Copper-Zinc (Lelanche), nickel-iron (Edison), lead-acid, nickel-cadmium, nickel metal hydride, and now lithium-ion as MASS PRODUCED (electric) energy storage devices. Lead-acid and Nickel-iron were extensively tried out as the “fuel” source for powertrains the beginning of the 20th century, and both failed economically against internal combustion based power trains. In the early 1980s GM, for one, again tried first lead acid and then nickel metal (rare earths) hydride. Again both technologies failed economically. Toyota developed the hybrid (internal combustion/electric motor) into mass production as the Prius using the nickel metal hydride battery. In the early 2000s lithium ion came back on the radar due to major changes in our understanding of electrochemistry and has very rapidly (for the OEM car industry) been put into production. First as the back-up battery in hybrids and then (and now) as the principal fuel source for EV powertrains. Tens of billions of dollars have been expended to learn how to mass manufacture current technology lithium ion batteries of the currently best type for long range driving, the lithium-nickel-cobalt-manganese, aluminum… type. Performance improvement now will occur at the margins, not from (unmanufacturable) break-through, or the very popular “disruptive” technologies. The OEM automobile industry is desperately trying now to find a way to changeover powertrains without bankrupting itself. It wants no more technology “big” changes requiring the immediate scrapping of internal combustion engine manufacturing facilities. Academics seeking grants will always be with us to show us table-top systems that work magically, but would require billions to scale up, and then might not work at all. For now and for this coming decade lithium cobalt chemistries are what work, and the industry is going to “dance with the lady it brought to the party.”

      1. Grumpy Engineer

        Ergh. And Mark Jacobson of Standford University says we need 500+ TWh of energy storage capacity to move the US electrical grid to a 100% renewable basis. If 570 thousand tons of cobalt are required for 30 million 70 kWh car batteries, then we’ll need 135 million tons of cobalt for grid energy storage. That’s 240 times as much.

        I suppose, though, that we could use other battery types for grid energy storage, as the batteries would be kept in a climate-controlled environment and don’t need to be lightweight. But if you read articles about using battery systems for grid storage, most of them assume that lithium-cobalt batteries will be used.

        Lead-acid actually remains more cost-effective, but a lot of people freak out when they hear the word “lead”. And perhaps they’re right. After all, this particular fire undoubtedly spewed LOTS of lead across the Hawaiian landscape:

  6. P Fitzsimon

    Conservation must be high priority. But with 7.5 Billion people on the planet and less than 1 B currently living the American Dream conservation alone will not cut it. We need new battery technology. The current NMC (lithium-ion Nickel Manganese Cobalt) recipe won’t make it happen.

  7. Jack brown

    The problem with this post, is that it assumes automobile battery chemistry will remain the same. For example lithium-polymer batteries don’t require cobalt at all, and they are obviously seeing widespread adoption right now mostly in smaller applications, but some Korean car companies are already using them.

  8. PlutoniumKun

    I think these problems are very exaggerated. Cobalt is easy and profitable to recycle, so there will, over time, be a cumulative increase in the amount of material available for manufacturers. Its also a relatively common substance – its production is geographically limited primarily because the Congo deposits are particularly rich and cheap to exploit. Like the ‘rare earths’ its not rare at all, its just that current market and technological limits have meant very few mines.

    Its also a material which is potentially replaceable. There is a lot of research going on into alternative cathodes, many of which use little or no cobalt. Given the enormous pace of change in battery technology there seems no reason to doubt that there won’t be a range of alternatives available within the next 10-15 years.

    This isn’t to say that resource bottlenecks are not a potentially huge problem for electrifying transport. Lithium, the rare earths, etc., are all limited, and there is something of a gold rush going on for miners and product developers. But making a definitive statement such as this based on current technology is a virtual guarantee of being wrong. Just read some of the predictions on solar output and battery technology from just nine years ago to see how quickly things change.

    Much as I hate to praise the UK government, this is exactly what is needed – definitive medium to long term targets to eliminate fossil fuel use from entire sectors. This is the only way to mobilise to focus minds in the transport industry to ensure there is a real and rapid sea change.

    1. zer0

      “Cobalt is easy and profitable to recycle” – says who exactly? If it is in a matrix, no it is not easy to recycle. If it is mixed with industrial chemicals, no it isn’t easy to recycle.

      Don’t forget that recycling batteries requires lots of heat and filters that need to be replaced all the time. Those filters are made from polymers that are bonded via phenolic resins. Phenolic resins are incredibly toxic. Trying to get out of fossil fuels is a fools dream at this point. It would require a complete overhaul of EVERYTHING, as plastics and other petroleum byproducts are present in virtually everything made today.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        “Cobalt is easy and profitable to recycle” – says who exactly? If it is in a matrix, no it is not easy to recycle. If it is mixed with industrial chemicals, no it isn’t easy to recycle.

        Its been done right now for batteries (non matrix cobalt recycling has been done profitably by numerous companies for decades, including one based just up the road from where I’m sitting now). One of the leaders is a Belgian company, Umicore. They bypass many of the problems others have by reprocessing used battery still within the matrix (i.e. not making pure cobalt) – so for example LCO (Lithium Cobolt Oxide) is extracted as a distinct product for re-use by battery manufacturers. There are lots of competing technologies. There is no good reason to think that some of them won’t mature and be viable, especially if manufacturers realise they will have no choice but to subsidise the processes in order to secure their supply chains.

        Most of the processes use a lot of energy of course, but usually much less energy than processing ore.

      2. a different chris

        >It would require a complete overhaul of EVERYTHING, as plastics and other petroleum byproducts

        Huh? We are just discussing not burning them. Which would release them for “plastics and other…byproducts”. I thought you were too, but your knee jerked too hard I guess.

      3. Nealser

        I second PK’s statement. I’ve visited Umicore Belgium and saw how they recycle large volumes of Cobalt from old Lithium ion batteries.

    2. kramer

      The article assumes 1 car per 2 people, which is the only reasonable assumption in the entire article. First, there are other battery chemistries that do not use cobalt such as LiFePo, nickle metal hydride, improved lead acid batteries, and even flow batteries. They may not all be capable of pushing a 4500 lb tesla 200 miles down the road, but some of them could. Also, why assume that the electric cars of the UK will need to go 200 miles. Most americans don’t even drive that far more then once or twice a year and the UK has a rail system. Why do cars in UK need to be 4500 lbs? Even many american EVs that weigh much less than this. Just with today’s technology, the UK fleet could be electrified for far less cobalt then suggested by the article. This article seems to be heavily weighted against the idea of EVs replacing the petrol motor by making worst case assumptions about almost all the variables.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        I did a study on advanced battery technologies in the early 1990s. LiFePo has lower energy density than lithium-cobalt, which is a meaningful disadvantage. Nickel metal hydride is unsuitable due to memory effects. Lead acid is subject to freezing in the winter when discharged. They are mainly used as starter batteries, and the issues for using them as EV batteries include safety risks.

        1. Neil Wilson

          ” Lead acid is subject to freezing in the winter when discharged.”

          Not in the UK, with our warming climate.

          Technology moves on when set with a hard goal. That’s how we put a man on the moon.

          Similarly if we heavily restricted immigration all of a sudden you’d get a massive increase in people replacement technology.

          Constraints are liberating.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Even though the UK is the hook for the article, the US is the much bigger car market, with more demanding consumer requirements (wider climate variation, more customers who occasionally to often drive longer distances. And Europeans in colder climes are customers for EVs too. No one is designing EVs for the UK only.

            And I wouldn’t be so confident about your weather prediction. Global warming means greater weather instability. The UK had some very nasty cold snaps and snows in the last few years. The northeastern US, which has generally had markedly warmer winters since the 1980s, had two brutally cold Januarys and Februarys in the last four years.

          2. Clive

            Oh please. We’ve hardly got a Mediterranean climate, although I do agree it is subject to a verifiable warming trend.

            My mother-in-law lives in Bournemouth which is one of the mildest climate zones in the country (apart from the southwest peninsular and the Scilly Isles). It is normally frost free, for the most part, and frost-tender plants survive quite happily as they don’t mind the occasional dip down to -1 or -2 centigrade (30F) for the odd night. But there are still infrequent hard frosts. It doesn’t matter how infrequent they are, once in while is enough. This winter just gone, she had -5 centigrade during a late cold snap. Her car is garaged but in a detached, unheated block well away from the main part of the house. It killed the 5-year old 12v battery (which was probably on its way out, this cold ambient temperature pushed it over the edge) stone dead. Overnight. With no warning.

            A bit of a nuisance but fairly easy to fix with a trip to the DIY centre. Try doing that with a traction battery.

            And that was on the south coast. Global warming not withstanding, when I go back to my home town in Yorkshire, winters can still be fairly harsh.

            Oh, and it cuts both ways. We test drove a Nissan Leaf last summer, which wasn’t that hot. On a trip from Bournemouth to Southampton with the A/C running and three people in the car, when we went up a steep hill we lost 15 miles of range in 5 minutes. We turned the setting on the climate control to “economy” but on a 84F degree day, we sweated and had to put it back on full whack. The journey was a round trip of c. 85 miles, we started out with 120 miles available showing on the energy monitor, but we hit range anxiety well before we got home.

            I’m an electric vehicle convert, but making stuff up doesn’t overcome their limitations or make for a good argument.

        2. gallam

          Whilst what you say about the alternative formulations is correct it is obvious that there is a huge research effort going on to improve what we currently have. A great deal has changed in the last five years, let alone since the early 1990s. Generally, there appears to be something like a Moore’s law at work in batteries, with roughly 7% per year improvements in the key parameters.

          In addition to large-scale commercial and university research programs there are many individuals pursuing the subject at home in their kitchens. Check out what is possible here for example:

          Various types of graphitic carbon (graphene etc) are remarkably easy to make.

  9. catsick

    There are many problems around the cobalt issue, the first being of course that the DRC is the Saudi Arabia of cobalt with about 2/3 of the worlds cobalt on the DRC / Zambia border , the area is a geological anomoly that is quite unique in the world ( it also hosted the worlds sole supply of almost pure Uranium which was used to make the Hiroshima/Nagaskai bombs) There will not be another find like this anywhere and it is maxed out producing the current cobalt needed for phones and laptops …

    Of cource the price of cobalt could go up to increse potential supply but there are problems which mean this cannot happen. Cobalt is a by product of copper production in almost all cases, you don’t mine for cobalt, you mine copper and get a small ammount of cobalt as a byproduct, thus it is impossible to ramp up cobalt supply given we already have massive copper mines that already mine out all the potential sites, there are very few new copper prospects of reasonable grade left. The price of cobalt does not have to go up a lot to make the batteries too expensive to use in cars apart from $100k usd plus supercars. Other cathodes do not give the energy density for BEV’s to work well so unless we get some new battery technology then we will be limited to 1-2% of cars being BEVs

    What stands a much better chance of working is new yeast technologies making ethanol from biowaste more efficient and running hybrid cars on 100% ethanol which actually solves the problem of BEV’s using coal generated electricity too ….

    1. vegeholic

      “… new yeast technologies making ethanol from biowaste …” I think it takes a lot of heat to distill the ethanol from the fermentation products. Where does the fuel come from to supply this heat? Isn’t the net energy contribution of this process very small or even negative? So what is the point?

      1. HotFlash

        Ethanol boils at 78.3 degC (173F), a hot compost pile can produce that temp or pretty close. Maybe a little methane flame to take it over the top? Compost produces lots of methane, too. So it’s do-able, and using a process whose byproducts are beneficial, rather than the usual “industrial waste”.

        Although human power (walking, bicycles etc) seem the way to go for much transpo — that, and re-jigging how we live to avoid commuting and wars (remind me — who is the largest user of petroleum fuels?). We can’t just keep living the way we are (long commutes, tall buildings, global supply chains, wars at a whim) and expect renewables to shoulder that outrageous energy burden.

  10. George Phillies

    Curiously, when demand goes up like this, there will be a considerable increase in price, which will make other sources economically feasible. Cobalt is currently $25 (round number) a pound, so tripling its price would add $2000 to the price of the car. However, the owner might recover that at the far end as salvage.

  11. JohnnySacks

    Everready energizer powered transportation appliances seem to be the dumb solution the world seems to be gathering around. The fusion reactor in the sky provides enough energy to get hydrogen from seawater via electrolysis. Of course that hits other resource and technical limitations, but research shouldn’t be ignored.

    1. yamahog

      It’s not ignored – Toyota and Honda are committed to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (which still have batteries but those batteries are an order of magnitude smaller than the batteries on BEVs).

      It’s a shame that so many electric car fans will bash hydrogen fuel cells any chance they can get. Look at – the guy takes as many pot-shots at Toyota as he takes at Trump. Sure, they’re right that most hydrogen right now comes from natural gas, but that’s not the only source and researchers are developing catalysts to make it easier to separate hydrogen and oxygen from ocean water.

      Not to return fire, but I think a lot of BEV fans have blinders on – BEVs don’t work great for folks who don’t have regular parking spots and it’s kinda unrealistic to imagine a future where every apartment and place of employment has a charger for every parking spot.

      I just wish people say a future with greater energy diversity. I don’t think it’s appropriate to take every fossil fuel vehicle and say “this should be a battery electric” vehicle – we should focus on developing the platforms for lower-emission, cost-effective solutions. Batteries, hydrogen, biofuel, ect.

      1. visitor

        BEVs don’t work great for folks who don’t have regular parking spots

        I seem to remember that in Japan people living in cities must prove they have permanent availability of a parking place to be authorized to register a car.

        it’s kinda unrealistic to imagine a future where every apartment and place of employment has a charger for every parking spot.

        It is almost the case in Nordic countries, where private parking spots do have an electric plug to allow heating the motor in winter, so that one can actually start the car despite the deeply negative temperatures.

      2. gallam

        Just so you are aware of what is going on, there is an existing company that is converting lamp posts into charging points.

        The electricity grid has billions of outlets already in existence. With a very modest effort and a little ingenuity it is easy to see how the vast majority of people could use a 100 mile range EV. It would require a minimal adjustment to journey patterns and the cars could store their energy in graphitic carbon-based supercapacitors or batteries.

        As a thought experiment, just consider what would happen if we knew that oil was going to disappear for transport purposes in 3 years. The West would very quickly adopt electric bikes and cars.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          If the UK is anything like the US, parking will be an issue. And you missed the officialdom saying a massive upgrade in the grid would need to be undertaken to handle the increase in the load, and they doubted it could be done by 2040. And it would ALSO result in UK electricity imports increasing from 10% to 30% by 2040.

          All these things are doable if you ignore real world constraints.

          1. andyb

            Yes, reality is such a bitch. With current technology, there are no easy answers without massive depopulation. Given that the elites want the Georgia Guide Stone wish of only 500,000,000 people on the planet, I wonder what will be their method of choice to achieve this drastic reduction?

          2. Thor's Hammer

            If it weren’t tragic, listening to all you frogs croaking while the pot gradually warms toward boiling would be amusing. The technological mind assumes that the solution to a technical problem is to invent a technology that replaces the old one and generates a higher profit for the Important People.

            The world doesn’t work that way. The 25% of the Great Barrier coral reef that died — not just temporarily bleached— in 2016 will not return. The warmer oceans of 2075 devoid of coral reefs will not support the 25% of the oceanic biomass that they did in 2000. The world is not a scientific experiment for homo sapiens to solve with their technologies. It is rather a dynamic biosphere within which we are merely (temporarily) the most destructive species until we poison our nest to the point of die off and extinction.

            1. Yves Smith Post author

              I never said anything approaching that. Please re-read the post. More generally, this site has consistently been skeptical of tech “gee whizzery” and tech tech as a solution for environmental issues. We’ve repeatedly said the biggest way to make a difference fast is conservation but people don’t want to change their habits.

              1. Thor's Hammer

                I wasn’t trying to paint you into a corner that you didn’t build— just trying to find a place to insert a little longer term perspective into all the enthusiastic debate about how many electric cars can drive on the pinnacle of the Washington Monument.

                People don’t want to change their habits — and won’t– because they can’t tell the water is getting warmer and warmer. And unlike the frog, they can’t just jump out because the entire planet is the pot.

                1. Yves Smith Post author

                  Sorry to have dumped on you. We are on the same page. And it’s frustrating to deal with the inertia. For instance, I have a friend who agrees 100% about global warming, that it’s largely and probably entirely anthropogenic and is a serious threat. Yet she is not willing to change her habits. She says, basically, that people in advanced economies would need to live like people in Amsterdam, in small apartments that are underheated in the winter with no dishwasher, and she’s not going to live like that.

  12. Clonal Antibody

    The LiCo batteries are not a solution, but likely a short term stopping point. Other battery technologies have to replace the existing technologies. There are some solutions that may come on tap over the next few years. Among them is the “glass battery” from the original inventor (John Goodenough) of the Li cell. The technology uses Li and sodium. The sodium use gets around the cobalt issue.

    Braga and Goodenough have stated that they expect the battery to have an energy density many times higher than that of current lithium-ion batteries, as well as an operating temperature range down to −20 °C (−4 °F); much lower than current solid-state batteries

    Of course, as with any new technology that is not “incremental” in nature, there are many skeptics.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The issue is how long it takes to get the technology to the point where it is reliable and what the production costs are, among other things. I’ve looked at lots of technologies, ranging from thin film solar panels to super hard materials to new cooking technologies to certain advanced batteries which all had great theoretical advantages and never got anywhere in the real world.

  13. Tobin Paz

    But what about peak oil and finite resources? It requires energy to extract, process, and transport the cobalt. Technological advances might extend business as usual for awhile. But even if by some miracle you can still extract oil at a reasonable price and energy input, at some point you are going to run into the exponential function.

    I’m not an economist, but it seems like the physical world is not taken into account at all.

  14. Synoia

    Get rid of cars. Walk, use bicycles and buses.
    Use rail for freight. Tucks (Lorries) are tremendously destructive to roads.

    New systems will not be the same as current systems.

    1. Edward E

      Nearly everything in ‘twucking’ is done with just-in-time delivery, so I don’t see rail helping. Unless you build a lot of warehouse space filled with inventory. Rail is a ‘when we eventually get around to it system’.
      Roads could be built a lot better. What do you think about these new electric semi-twucks about to start logging miles?

      1. Synoia

        Trains move goods faster than ships. You are making a case for the silk road to become a silk rail system.

    2. Dwight

      In my opinion, commercial trucks and public buses are the only motor vehicles that should be allowed in Manhattan and much of Washington DC. Many other cities too, I’m sure. Electric vehicles will ruin these cities walking spaces and traffic flows nearly as much.

      Electric vehicles will lower urban air pollution, but will still be massive emitters of carbon, even if the electricity is produced by renewables, because of the carbon embedded in solar and wind and vehicle production, which is significant and massive at scale.

      Electric vehicles take us further down a failed, unsustainable, and city-destroying path.

      1. kgc

        And taxis. No private cars, unless they have a specific permit (commuters from un-subwayed parts of the city, out-of-state tourists and so on; no permits for people with a park-and-ride to the train or subway).

        We could talk about Uber, Lyft, etc. as means to keep taxi fares in check, but based on previous NC posts I don’t think their prices are sustainable. Which means they force taxi drivers into poverty, as well as their own drivers.

        Does that mean we’d rely on taxi price regulations to keep the greed of the fleet owners in check?

        Not sure what the answer is, but that doesn’t sound right. And in any event I don’t think private cars should generally be allowed in Manhattan.

    3. Dwight

      In my opinion, commercial trucks and public buses are the only motor vehicles that should be allowed in Manhattan and much of Washington DC. Many other cities too, I’m sure. Electric vehicles will ruin these cities walking spaces and traffic flows nearly as much.

      Electric vehicles will lower urban air pollution, but will still be massive emitters of carbon, even if the electricity is produced by renewables, because of the carbon embedded in solar and wind and vehicle production, which is significant and massive at scale.

      Electric vehicles take us further down a failed, unsustainable, and city-destroying path.

  15. steven

    Using Tesla or any of the 200 mile+ EVs coming on the market right now as the basis for this argument is (or may possibly be) its undoing. I remember reading research stating the 90+% of drivers drive less than 40 miles per day. The design of GM’s Volt was based on this research. I don’t know how much cobalt the Volt’s battery requires but if range and cobalt use scale linearly, the ‘range extender’ (i.e. accessory gas-powered generator) is the way to go for the 10% who really do need more than a 40 mile electric range (I believe it is up to about 52 in the current model year) of the Volt.

    There is a stubborn purist streak in EV zealots that apparently prohibits them from approaching the issue with anything but an ‘either / or’ approach. Nissan at one time was considering a plan to provide low-cost gas-powered rentals to drivers who might occasionally need the longer range for a family vacation, etc.
    Other possibilities include developing rapid inter-city mass transit systems with EV rentals available at the destination.

    These may be only incremental steps in the right direction but as far as I can see they are doable right now.

    P.S. In a world choked with people the only really ‘pure’ solution may be doing away entirely with personally owned vehicles (or about nine tenths of the people).

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I think you are right about that – there is no rule to say that the current model of car ownership will always stay the same. Lots of people (including myself) get by just fine using rental cars when I can’t walk/cycle or get a train somewhere. A lot of car companies and rental companies seem to see a big future in more mixed modes of ownership – a mix of leasing, hourly rental rates, car sharing clubs, etc., expecially for urbanites.

      Anecdotally, I think a model quite a few suburbanite/rural dwellers will increasingly go for will be small EVs for day to day use, commuting, shopping etc., while keeping a good second hand fossil fuel car for big journeys on the weekend or for driving holidays. That sort of model could be very bad news for manufacturers as people may find it doesn’t make sense to buy big family cars new if EV’s prove cheap for daily driving – they will go for nice used models. I think its this thinking which has driven BMW’s investment in their ‘i’ range.

      1. philnc

        I think that’s a good call, and shows you’re much more in tune with ordinary people than most policy makers. The predicted impact on automakers also seems about right: but what can the expect when the average price of a new car is what previous generations paid over a 30 year period for a new home?

        Here in the US the fossil fuel industrial complex succeeded in eliminating or crappifying mass transit to the point of irrelevance in most places, facing us with the daunting task of having to build from scratch, the way TVA brought electricity to its region.

        Best part of the article was the bit at the end about the intellectual unreadiness of the current political class (who I think share that failing with the rest of the single-digit upper income percent of population). Could be the basis for a revolutionary drive to recruit new candidates for public office: “Please, run. Because the guy there now is so stupid he’s going to get us all killed.”

      2. gallam

        “Anecdotally, I think a model quite a few suburbanite/rural dwellers will increasingly go for will be small EVs for day to day use, commuting, shopping etc., while keeping a good second hand fossil fuel car for big journeys on the weekend or for driving holidays.”

        That is exactly what we have done and it has really demonstrated to me personally the enormous increase in efficiency that an electric car brings. We have a Nissan Leaf which has driven 50,0000 miles and has required a few tyres and a new windscreen wiper in that time. The electricity usage is covered, more or less, by 16 solar panels and we live in the UK. Since getting the electric car, we have probably driven less than 5,000 miles in our petrol cars and they continue to go wrong at regular intervals. People focus a lot on the cost of fuel, but the fact that there are an order of magnitude fewer parts in an electric vehicle is at least as important.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          You are in the UK. The UK is not the US. The US is a much bigger car market and people particularly in the Western parts of the US, where the distance between cities are large, regularly make long drives. I have readers in California who at least 2X a month are driving well over over 200 miles. One reader in the last six weeks drove from Santa Cruz to LA (300 miles) and also drove from the Seattle area to Santa Cruz in a day (13 hours, nearly 900 miles). My brother and sister in law regularly drive from Charlottesville to Birmingham (over 600 miles in a day). They’d then drive from there to Houston to see clients (nearly 700 miles in a day). They also regularly drive to visit her family in Bay Shore, a 400 mile drive. I know other friends of my family who regularly drive from Birmingham to Iowa or South Dakota, again vastly more than an EV driving range. A friend and I drove from LA to Boston in 5 days (nearly 3000 miles). You’ve got no sense of distances people regularly drive in the US.

          And petrol costs are also much higher in the UK than in the US.

    2. a different chris

      Nice post. I am not sure about the “stubborn purist streak” — it seems more like it was foisted on them, so they got defensive and started saying “oh yeah we can so completely replace the current gas car, just watch!”. My next car will be a used EV, and with my actual driving needs (20miles r/t) they’ve been making a car good enough for years now.

      There was an 80 mile range Ford Focus (? think Focus, definitely Ford) with like 10k miles on it for 8K last year. 8 thousand dollars…, and it didn’t seem to be moving at that.. Hell if I lived twice as far from work I could buy 3 and alternate them and still be ahead.

      OK, probably not 40 miles from work given a cold winter day. But you get my point.

      And no matter what, even if burning fossil fuels wasn’t the grossest thing ever to do to the planet, we will run out of them someday too. Also consider that electric motors are just so much better at… well everything.

      Finally, the day of the owner-and-only-driver automobile is coming to an end. Regardless of fuel.

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      The “average” analysis is no good. Consumers may AVERAGE only 40 miles a day, but so what? What is their variance? Americans regularly drive long distances, on holidays, to visit relatives, to drive their kids to camp. They don’t want to own a car and then have to rent a car for those occasions. America is a huuge target market and one of the design parameters for EVs has been that to be competitive with cars. A normal car has a 16-20 gallon gas tank and goes 22 MPG or better. That means 350 miles or more before a refuel. People do not want to worry about charging their car all the time which it what lower battery output entails.

      1. a different chris

        > They don’t want to own a car and then have to rent a car for those occasion

        They also didn’t like rock, then they couldn’t stand punk, then OMG grunge… People change. Very few people are happy driving a monster “mini”van to work everyday, just as unhappy as they would be with a small car on a long trip. Our solution seems to be to buy a midsized SUV, which does both badly.

        >one of the design parameters for EVs has been that to be competitive with cars

        Yeah because you always have to start pretty close to where everybody’s at…. otherwise Citroen would rule the world. That’s also the point of Ludicrous Mode, where a sedan shows its taillights to the fastest supercars. But it’s just a “hey look at me”, nobody needs that.

        You see, Enterprise delivers. They will show up *at your door* with a darn nice, low mileage minivan. You can rent it the day before and have your SO pack it whilst you go to work that day, instead of you driving the SUV and then trying to stuff all your crap in it when you get home. You drive your own minivan to work everyday, when you go on that third year trip the thing has 80K miles on it and breaks down and ruins your vacation and you pay thru the butt.

        “on holidays, to visit relatives, to drive their kids to camp”…these are not surprises, are they?

        What I maybe wasn’t entirely clear on, in my last post,was that yeah people expect you to start where they are at. But the first adopters aren’t going to run the world out of cobalt. Once things get going then people, again, are quite capable of change.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          One of the fastest ways to fail in business is to sell consumers what you think they should want, rather than what they want. I’ve seen this repeatedly with people in tech who are certain that the public will adopt an “innovation” that they and their gearhead friends love, when it requires changes in customer behavior, and they have no reason to change. And it also happens all the time when companies enter foreign markets. They refuse to believe the locals don’t have tastes like theirs.

          And you admit that consumers for the most part don’t want shorter-distance “full fuel” vehicles but insist they will. Really? And do people want to eat veggies more by virtue of knowing they are healthy? I don’t see much evidence of that either outside the market segment that is already health-conscious.

          I suggest you also look into what happens when an EV runs out of juice versus a gas-fuelled car. Hint: it has to be towed. Further hint: if you are driving a Tesla and forget to set it to tow mode before it dies fatally (the Telsa continue some functions when there is not enough power to propel the vehicle) the car will be damaged when towed. And thing like headwinds or being stuck in traffic while running the a/c can make your car consume way more power than you’d anticipated.

          1. Terry Flynn

            Agreed. The main US person my then boss hired in the ‘heyday’ of our choice modelling unit in Sydney had done his PhD whilst ’embedded’ within GM in Detroit. GM were interested in what the trade-offs people would actually make in terms of what they want in a new (typically electric) car. They were (for once) ahead of the curve in terms of using his insights from consumers in feeding back the info to the engineers/designers in order to give people what they want, rather than what we think they should want/have.

            When he was poached to come to Sydney, I don’t know if GM carried on with this or abandoned it. But they certainly *at one point* knew what the real problem was. He has since returned to the US to do consultancy work in a similar area. Again, I have no idea if his projects are ones that are funded by the GMs of this world and which recognise the limitations that you point out. But my general point is that companies have (at some points in time) recognised real human consumer wants and tried to engineer cars that satisfy these….whether they continue to do so is an open question.

          2. gallam


            You really need to borrow an electric car for a few weeks to see what it is like. It does require a modest change in behaviour, just like the transition from a Nokia to an Iphone did (remember how the nightly charging was initially frustrating?).

            The point about electric cars as they are today is that they are startlingly cheap to run, as in almost free once you have solar panels installed and treated as a sunk cost.

            Headwinds are never a problem on 40 mile journeys and neither is being stuck in traffic with the AC on. I had a look at the journeys that we most often made and I realised that we are creatures of habit. As a result I could personally pay for chargers to be installed at a few destinations and that was sufficient for 95% of our journeys to be covered by a 70 mile range electric car.

            And if you run out of either petrol or electricity, well, you are a twit. Just consider what twits get up to with guns.

            1. gallam

              And I forgot to add that looking at the electric car, solar panels and a few chargers purely as an investment resulted in me taking the plunge immediately. It paid for itself in about 2 years, which I can really only describe as a no-brainer.

              1. Yves Smith Post author

                Not everyone has exposures where solar panels work. And I live in an apartment building, which is vastly more energy efficient than a freestanding house, but flat roof and high density buildings don’t allow for solar panels as a meaningful energy source.

            2. Yves Smith Post author

              I don’t do 40 mile drives when I drive a car. It’s well over 100 a day.

              And you are now straw manning me. The point of departure was arguing that consumers only needed a car with a range of well under 200 miles. That might fly in the UK but it would severely restrict the potential market in the US.

              I do not own a car and I never plan to own a car. But if I did, it would be a seriously antique one, because I do not find cars that spy on me acceptable. I still have an Nokia dumbphone for that very reason.

              And sorry, there was a story about a Tesla owner running out of charge precisely because strong headwinds led them to mis-estimate the fuel use.

              Tesla’s rated range does not account for elevation changes or wind conditions. We find the site EVTripPlanner does an excellent job with estimating power consumption by taking into account speed, climate control usage and elevation changes….

              That said, there are factors you can’t predict upfront, such as wind conditions. While not a big concern in most cases, it should be taken seriously in areas that are prone to high wind conditions and strong gusts. A strong head wind can almost double the Model S power requirements. Even slowing down does not render a substantial improvement. With that in mind, get as much extra charge as possible and drive extra conservative well before crossing into high wind territory. It’s easy for us to say that now having just learned from our Las Vegas to Barstow experience.


              So this is not theoretical. And this was with a car with a 260 mile rated range.

            3. Grumpy Engineer

              Stuck in traffic with the AC on?

              Phfft. If you really want to watch a car battery get drained really quickly, try getting stuck in a snowstorm with the heat on.

              Driving an electric car into headwinds on a hot day results in less range and more frequent stops for time-consuming battery recharging. Many people would find this highly annoying, but it’s hardly the end of the world.

              An electric car in a snowstorm, though? That can be dangerous. Especially if your car only has a smaller 40-mile battery.

        2. Terry Flynn

          Not to disagree with anything Yves says (see my reply below) but just on the subject of Enterprise’s customer service (here in the UK). I have consistently found them to be the most customer-oriented of all the rental car agencies, recognising what I want, following up on problems etc.

          When I need to drive, I hire a care from Enterprise – who fortuitously have a branch 200 metres from where I live too. They have just introduced a new system to judge whether a scratch etc should be recorded as something to “hit you with” – a little tool that basically allows anything within a certain ‘circle’ to be ignored. Hertz (in my previous experience) gleefully used the slightest such scratch (often caused simply by driving down a badly paved road with a stone catapult up and cause a minor scratch) as an excuse to charge you.

          1. Clive

            I no longer drive as Stevie Wonder would give my eyesight a run for the money (slight exaggeration — I only just fail the DVLA minimum standard and can possibly squeeze a pass if I was prepared to find an optometrist who was willing to tell a Little White Lie, which I am not) so I don’t run a car. One of the best things that I ever did, but that’s a digression.

            Conscious that I do not want to be constantly blagging rides from friends and family, when there is a road trip of some sort (especially when the driver nominated has a vehicle which, erm, I’m not too keen on putting my life in its hands, I am hugely risk averse when it comes to road travel) I always offer to arrange a hire car. Enterprise are, as you say, invariably superb.

            That said, it is not what you’d call fuss-free. The local branch is a 5 minute drive or 20-odd minute walk away from where my family / relations are settled so getting there isn’t too bad, but hardly spur-of-the-moment in terms of logistics. Then you have rigmarole of finding the driving licences — including counterparts — and the antiterrorism theatre / insurance industry gimmie of authenticating your licence and allowing third party data sharing via the DVLA which is now mandatory at all the mainstream rental outfits.

            Then you have the gamble that is insurance. Having had my fingers burnt through a bezzle “damage” charge (and this was Enterprise, I suspect they needed a bit of extra revenue to hit their target for the month and this is an obvious scam to do it by), I sussed out that the only way which no possible come-back on any vehicle damage can be laid at your door is to take out both the CDW and the CDW co-pay cover. That way, you can tell the rental company to take a hike if they find any damage and want to invoke the co-pay / excess. Strangely enough, since I started doing that, I never had any “damage” advised to me as a result of a hire.

            This whacks up the total cost. The last time I hired a vehicle, I got a great deal on the hire (3 day long-weekend for a Mercedes C-class was £40/day) but the insurance came to over £50. Of course I could have saved this if I’d wanted to try arranging my own cover. But like I say, I’m risk-averse and hassle-averse — I am simply too time-poor to get embroiled in a messy wrangle with an insurance claim. For the more risk-tolerant, short-term hire may be an option but it will never be competitive with the “let’s just jump in the car and go” crowd.

            1. Terry Flynn

              I agree regarding the insurance….I take all the options as I’m risk averse too.
              There’s still the £100 excess you can’t avoid – I got hit with it when some [family blog] person at ASDA opened their door and put a long scratch into the driver’s door. The staff seemed quite apologetic that the rules required them to make me pay the excess….since then they seem quite attentive to advising me how to avoid such instances in future. But, as you say, I end up paying a LOT more than the advertised rate on the cars I hire.

      2. steven

        They don’t want to own a car and then have to rent a car for those occasions.

        I’m guessing it is ‘smart money’ to rack up the miles on a rental rather than an expensive POV. Yes, if you are one of the 10% who regularly travel further than the range of an affordable EV can take you, an EV is not for you. But if you only have to rent once or twice a year do you really think people will care, especially if they can save money?

        America is a huuge target market and one of the design parameters for EVs has been that to be competitive with cars.

        I think that is a mistake. Even with fast ‘level 3’ chargers EV’s are not going to be “competitive” with gas powered cars when it comes time to ‘fill up’. But they don’t really need to be. As PlutoniumKun says “I think a model quite a few suburbanite/rural dwellers will increasingly go for will be small EVs for day to day use, commuting, shopping etc., while keeping a good second hand fossil fuel car for big journeys on the weekend or for driving holidays.” I’ve driven a Volt for 4 1/2 years and had to use the gas generator (AKA ‘range extender’) maybe three times. I could have purchased a Nissan LEAF for less money (and would have except for the battery-killing heat here in Arizona) and avoided the need for a range extender altogether.

        My sister-in-law has driven hers several times from Wisconsin to Florida several times. She doesn’t stop for 4 hours to charge. She just fills up with gas and hits the road.

        @clarky90 – The ““”pure” solution” is for the personal transportation problem, not “cobalt scarcity”. I personally think 90% of the world would rather give up gas powered cars than their lives.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          You are completely misunderstanding that 40 mile a day statistic. That’s an AVERAGE. You can average 40 miles a day and still have very long drives more than once a month.

          And also see Grumpy Engineer’s point about about how much energy a car consumes in cold climates when stuck. People in the northers parts of the US would find a mini charge car unacceptable for safety reasons.

    4. clarky90

      Steven, if there are 7,500,000,000 people on the Earth today, AND if 90% need to “go” in order to roll out a “”pure” solution” to cobalt scarcity, then 6,750.000,000 dead babies, children, adolescents, adults and old people will be the result.

      Of course, you are planning be one of the blessed 10%? You will need to be under the age of 35, fit, healthy, un-medicated and have grown up in the bush? Good luck, and all the best! Unfortunately for me, I am far too old.

    1. a different chris

      One thing I noticed in that generally positive article:

      “Researchers such as John Goodenough have been trying to build a robust, inexpensive solid-state battery for decades. Toyota saying it will do so is one thing. Actually doing it is quite another. Israeli startup StoreDot says it has a solid-state battery with a range of 300 miles that recharges in 5 minutes. Henrik Fisker claims his new EMotion electric car will go more than 400 miles on a single charge and then recharge in just 9 minutes.”

      Goodenough is obviously pretty awesome — but he’s only one guy. Fisker and StoreDot — fine, but comparing those three to freakin’ Toyota?? That’s a sandlot game compared to the MLB. If Toyota says it will do so, in public, they will do so.

      1. a different chris

        This doesn’t change my contention that within a decade most everybody will be perfectly happy to have half that range and pocket the $4K battery savings. The neat thing is, unlike picking a different drivetrain, the non-battery part of the car not only is still useful for *anybody*, it’s actually a bit better because the people who need the second battery pack will get a new one.

        1. Synoia

          Q: What’s a battery with enough energy for a car to travel 350 miles?

          A: A potential bomb.

          1. Kurt Sperry

            Q: What’s a gasoline tank with enough energy for a car to travel 350 miles?

            A: Same exact thing.

            1. Synoia

              Rate of burn is not fast enough for an explosion. A bad fire yes, an explosion, no.

              The difference between an explosion and a fire is the rate of discharge of energy.

              With light metal batteries, the rate of discharge is huge, and the potential for fire increased, because light metals burn much hotter then hydrocarbons, with enough energy to disassociate oxygen from water.

              Hydrocarbons do not burn hot enough to disassociate oxygen from water.

              Note: Subject to STP conditions.

              1. redleg


                Gasoline vapor is combustible. For gasoline to be bomb grade it must be vaporized or combined with an oxidizer and then detonated. Even then it’s more of a deflagration than a detonation.
                Flour is far more explosive than gasoline, if you know what you’re doing. Same with sugar, sawdust, etc.

                Light metal batteries explode. Some by simply adding water.

                And for the record, field expedient explosives was something the army taught me. I’m not some crazy person, or at least not yet.

                1. Synoia

                  Acetylene is the most powerful hydrocarbon explosive. Nothing like a triple carbon to carbon bond to store energy.

                  That’s why its used it cutting torches.

                  However, Acetylene power has no comparison to that of an Scorned Woman’s tongue.

  16. Jim Haygood

    From Wikipedia:

    Julian Simon challenged Paul Ehrlich to choose any raw material he wanted and a date more than a year away, and he would wager $10,000 on the inflation-adjusted prices decreasing as opposed to increasing.

    Ehrlich chose copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten. The bet was formalized on September 29, 1980, with September 29, 1990 as the payoff date. Ehrlich lost the bet, as all five commodities that were bet on declined in price from 1980 through 1990, the wager period.

    Any takers using cobalt?

    Actually, with inflation-adjusted commodity prices near their 1933 and 2001 generational lows, I’d be reluctant to make that bet, from a cyclical point of view.

    But I don’t wake up in a night sweat worrying about cobalt, either. :-)

    1. Vatch

      So long as the great majority of people in the world are severely impoverished, the prices of many commodities will remain relatively low. If we ever manage to significantly reduce poverty (very unlikely), a lot of commodities will become noticeably more expensive. Six oligarchs (maybe only five) own as much wealth as half of the people in the world (3.7 billion people) own. Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Amancio Ortega, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, and Carlos Slim Helu — those guys aren’t going to let go of their wealth without a major fight.

    2. Anon

      Well, the full text of the Wikipedia article says that Erlich’s premise that prices would rise would have prevailed if the bet had been taken beyond ten years.

      The general premise that Erlich was making: the earth has limited capabilities and a warming planet was in the offing.

  17. Mike G

    let’s assume that it has 1 fossil fuel powered motor vehicle of some kind for every 2 citizens

    Why assume? Can’t you find statistics for the actual number of motor vehicles in the UK?

    1. Clive

      Please — please — remember how crappified search engines has / have become. They are beyond a joke with advertising priorities and rankings by revenue. It is extremely difficult to get good search results from outside your locality (even disabling location services doesn’t help because your O/S and browser sends other clues like regional settings and keyboard locales) so you get country-specific content. Asking for results from a specific location is invariably ignored because advertising and paid content still gets priority.

      I tear what’s left of my hair out trying to get valid search results on Japan and Japanese language content from the UK. Even US content from the UK is hit-and-miss. So for the author, attempts to get known, reliable and accurate data about the UK would be a chore.

      As it happens, their educated estimate was pretty much spot on (pg. 8 refers). I’ll bet you £1 that if a US reader input the same search as I did (“uk car ownership”), this government website would not show up and/or not narrow down to the relevant content.

      1. Vatch

        You’re absolutely right that web searches are a crap shoot. I got lucky, even though I’m from the US, and I picked good search terms. On other occasions, I’ve failed to find something that should have been easy to find. If anyone is curious, I searched for:

        number vehicles united kingdom

  18. Oregoncharles

    2 points:
    First, an introductory geology course (“for dummies,” I was not a major) pointed out that the definition of “ore” is purely economic: “worth recovering at present prices.” When the price goes up, so does the amount of ore – and, to be fair, the amount of damage from mining it. Gold mining is especially destructive because the price will support moving vast amounts of rock.

    Second, and more important: that is not the only kind of battery. The most obvious is hydrogen, actually a type of electricity storage. But there are others being explored; some don’t lend themselves to phones or flashlights, but can be highly efficient when there’s more space, using either atmospheric oxygen or fluid movement to release the stored energy. Sorry I don’t remember the names; it was a TV program, some time ago. It’s an extremely lively field of research, for obvious reasons, so very much a moving target.

    In fact, Tesla is taking a big risk in building that huge battery factory, unless it’s very flexible in the technology it can use.

    1. Cujo359

      the definition of “ore” is purely economic: “worth recovering at present prices.”

      Quite true. For anyone who doesn’t believe this, next time you’re driving around the country, take note of all the places you see rust-colored rock, and how few places are actually considered worth mining for iron.

      that is not the only kind of battery

      Plus, as others have already mentioned, there’s considerable materials and engineering research being done in this area. The guy who patents a way to make an electric car considerably lighter and easier to charge will be very rich (or, the company he works for will be). Since those issues will most likely be solved by better batteries, there’s lots of motivation for making them better.

    2. bob

      “When the price goes up, so does the amount of ore ”

      Markets make base metals!

      The amount of ore never changes. The type and amount of ore that is “economically viable” may change, but with very few exceptions, notably nuclear decay and meteorites, the amount of any metal on earth is steady, and never changes. It has been steady for a few billion years now.

      1. lyle

        To show the changes consider that much of todays iron ore would have been put on the waste pile 60 years ago because it was to low in concentration. (Then tech figured out how to better benificate the ore increasing the percent of iron allow the new ore to go into the blast furnace.)
        Actually the best model of a recycling economy is in the iron and steel industry in the US where 68 of steel is made from recycled materials (at far lower cost than virgin steel, blast furnaces are expensive units to build and run) Or compare the percent copper in todays ores with that 120 years ago,it is far lower. Metalurgical engineers if given a challenge where the management believes the economics is good will over time produce new solution.

        1. bob

          “Metalurgical engineers if given a challenge where the management believes the economics is good will over time produce new solution.”

          They still can’t produce any more iron than is currently on the earth. If you can’t admit this point, that there is a very well defined upper limit on that amount of Iron that is currently on or in the earth, then there is no sense arguing. This even in spite of your propaganda from the steel industry. How much energy do they “get out of steel” when they “recycle” it? It’s gone forever. Thermodynamics is a bitch. See also previous discussions here on double counting.

          This whole comment thread is a great view into how far techno-utopianism has displaced any real physical science or understanding of how to apply it properly. Tech + a high enough price = problem solved!

          Why not just apply this Magic Logic to oil, build more big cars and be done with the whole argument early? Higher price = More oil. No problem.

          1. lyle

            Recall that this is talking about the law of supply and demand, higher price also implies less demand. With most metals they are recyclable. On the energy issue see Vaclav Smil his Still the Iron Age. Most of the energy in virgin steel goes into the conversion of iron or to pig iron in the blast furnace. With recycled steel the blast furnace step is skipped.
            The cobalt issue sounds like the shortage de jour issue just like Rare Earths were a few years ago. Of course predictions of running out of things are common, in the 1860s I understand that there was concern about running out of coal in the US, in the 1880s Rockefellers partners wanted to move away from oil because Oil could only be found in western PA, …. Let alone the peak oil issue of a few years ago although it could now be peak oil demand not supply.

      2. Oregoncharles

        The amount of a given metal in the ground doesn’t change, except on very large time scales (subduction). The amount that is ore, that is, economically recoverable, depends on the price – as well as cost factors like transportation, obstacles (deep water), etc.

        So the geologists say.

    3. lyle

      Let me take the statement above to an extreme There are evidently about 31,000 tons of gold in circulation, yet the oceans are said to contain 20,000,000 tons of gold atoms. It is just that the cost to extract the ions from seawater would greatly exceed the value produced. However gold in sea water is in the parts per trillion range. Just like if you go back a lot of gold mines reopened after the price went to $35 an oz from 20.67 in the 1930s but closed because gold was not deemed essential to the war effort in WWII.

  19. DavidW

    My understanding is that pure EVs and plug-in hybrids (which will still have an IC engine) will meet the 2040 requirement, so that’s the date when new vehicles sold in the U.K. have to be ‘electrified’ but not fully EV only. The transition will not be a step function as implied by the post and there’s decades still to adjust the course (5 vehicle design cycles assuming 4 years per major redesign).

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      He’s using the UK as the focus due to its initiative but his point is the 1 billion cars, as in getting EVs in China and other economies.

      As one reader pointed out above, the real remedy is to reduce car and truck use.

      1. DavidW

        Guess I missed his point – I thought he was concerned that the switch to electrified vehicles would create resource availability issues with cobalt. My point is that the 2040 EV requirements & new 2040 ‘electrified’ vehicles will not look like today’s ‘Tesla model’, 5,000 pound (overweight luxury cars) vehicles with huge battery packs. Designs will improve significantly. Battery pack capacity will decrease. I can’t imagine we’ll have much luck reducing demand for cars & trucks as we prefer to build our communities to accommodate private vehicles and public roads.

        1. bob

          “Designs will improve significantly. Battery pack capacity will decrease.”

          Tautology as evidence. Which is then supporting this nonsense-

          “My point is that the 2040 EV requirements & new 2040 ‘electrified’ vehicles will not look like today’s ‘Tesla model’”

          What it will NOT look like is NOT an argument, or a point. It’s a statement of opinion. An opinion that is not backed with anything even remotely resembling facts.

            1. bob

              Straw man. I didn’t say that.

              You did say EXACTLY what I quoted. The quotes should stand as an indication of that.

              Where was I wrong? Where is the argument beyond- It’s inevitable, because I said so.

              1. DavidW

                Yes Bob, you are spot on! I can think of no more significant debate that requires factual rigor with supporting footnotes than our prognostications regarding the amount of cobalt which will be required for 1 billion EVs which are being driven by regulatory changes set to start that transition to 1 billion EVs in 22 years and 5 months from now. It is of the utmost importance that I include factual references to support my unsubstantiated claims which you quickly and correctly identified in my prior post. As I have no sourcing for my unsubstantiated ‘opinions’ (may I add that I could be a heathen here – I’m hoping you don’t hold it against me especially since I admit it) and, more importantly I see no need for such in our prognostications about the electrified transportation world in 2040 I will now wander off and find a sub sub Reddit where I can work on my sourcing and footnoting. It has been a pleasure making your acquaintance and may you have a wonderful evening!

                1. bob

                  “As I have no sourcing for my unsubstantiated ‘opinions’”

                  Is this an admission of fact or insanity?

  20. elkern

    Increased demand for Cobalt is likely to make deep-ocean-floor mining economically feasible. In some places, the ocean floor is littered with “manganese nodules” which are also high in Cobalt. Metals suppliers have been looking at this for decades. It’s not easy to get the minerals from there to here – and therefore not cheap – but higher Co prices would make it profitable.

    Unfortunately, the nodules are often concentrated around ocean-floor vents, which often have unique local ecologies. Will tube-worms prove charismatic enough to get protected?

    And the ripe areas are mostly not within national waters, so the laws governing the extraction are somewhat vague.

  21. oliverks

    I don’t want to upset the apple cart here, but cobalt will be squeezed out of batteries. Perhaps not eliminated, but certainly reduced. Here is a link to an interesting paper about the plus and minus of the electrodes in Li batteries (which are what consume Co).

    According to this, the Nissan Leaf doesn’t even use Cobalt and it ships more cars than Tesla currently.

    I suspect the we will see steady yearly progress in reducing costs and improving performance. So to project out to 2040 based on what a battery does today is just ridiculous.

  22. Tim

    Stupid car batteries are going to make my electric guitar “AlNiCo” (Co is for cobalt) pickups more expensive!

    Toyota has just claimed they have a solid state battery that can charge in minutes and will be commercialized by 2022. I’m dying to know what materials it is made up from. Hopefully less rare earth and Li Co type elements.

    1. Synoia

      Toyota has just claimed they have a solid state battery that can charge in minutes…

      Hopefully it cannot be discharged in under one second…

  23. Jeremy Grimm

    Just as new technology and advances in science and engineering will take care of future energy problems they will take care of transportation problems. And so far the energy problems have not yielded to this promise of progress and nothing offers reason to believe that will suddenly change. Similarly I see little reason to believe a wave of progress in transportation technology will come to rescue our present ways of travel.

    I expect vehicles will become much smaller and much lighter weight — more like bicycles than cars. We will not be able to travel as far as fast or as often as we once did. Those who live in more fortunate lands may come to rely upon and better support their public transportation.

    I am reluctant to speculate what transportation our very wealthy might enjoy.

    I suspect a cobalt bottleneck is only one of many problems in the way of electric cars designed to duplicate as much as possible the characteristics of today’s gasoline or diesel cars. We will live through a future of flux. I believe placing hope on paradign shifting new technological breakthroughs to help us cling to our past ways is magical thinking.

    1. Dirk77

      You could argue that relying on technology to help you escape your nature is magical thinking too. It’s possible that unless interplanetary travel is invented to take the pressure off, humans are a self-terminating species and that’s just the way it is. But no one has a crystal ball so I will wait and see.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        I like magical thinking. It stimulates my imagination and helps me dream of new things.

        Relying on technology to help you escape your nature is indeed magical thinking. Technology helps us escape physical constraints and limitations of the world. — Although thinking more magically the wetware implants of a Gibson novel might indeed let us escape our natures.

        But I am using “magical thinking” as pejorative in a slightly different usage — stolen from too much past reading of the Archdruid. Technology could indeed solve our problems of energy and transportation. But blind faith based on a notion of steady progress — a Moore’s law for all things of technology — is a magical belief in progress. Blind faith that a solution is on the way — a timely solution — as we face looming deadlines is not a good plan for dealing future problems. It does provide some comfort and a way to ease into the changes which are coming. I suppose magical thinking may serve as a useful coping mechanism for adjusting with gradual changes.

        There is no clear indication the changes coming will be gradual in their arrivals nor their impacts. I have little clue what our future may be like but I sense the changes coming will neither be gentle nor gradual nor forgiving. Coping through magical belief in inevitable progress and technical solutions while I wait the coming changes is growing very uncomfortable.

        A last thought — magical thinking too easily lends itself to supporting the neoliberal doctrine that the Market will solve all our problems through the Marketplace of ideas the efforts of creative entrepreneurs. This is anathema to me.

    2. Jack Lifton


      I couldn’t agree more. In fact the title of my next piece is “Magical Thinking.”


      Jack Lifton

    3. Mo's Bike Shop

      I agree with this, and also thought of Mr. Greer, sure is right about the cornucopians. Granted, we could extract iron from whooping crane droppings, but that will never be a feedstock for an industrial civilization.

      ‘Yes, there’ll be demand destruction’, well, if you get enough DD, what you face is revolt because participants aren’t getting anything from the system. Is there any work out on the nets about how to handle demand destruction with something better than ‘Woops, chaos.’? I’d be interested, because while some aspects of the future are dim, others are inevitable.

      Along those lines I’d recommend the site ‘Do the Math”, I haven’t followed it regularly since the early teens, but it’s a Physics prof doing the kind of estimating XKCD likes to rib. Covers subjects like: Is there even enough lead to power our current transport if you hand-wave the technical problems? Why low tech solar panels are a better deal. And “Meh, Space is not the answer.” And his real adventures in getting off grid.

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