Mining and Electric Vehicles: Lithium, Nickel, Cobalt

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Readers, every so often I mention the famous New Yorker article about a reporter who accompanies a group of locals into a swamp to find a bird, thought to be extinct, but whose song may have been heard. After many many pages, the upshot: They didn’t find the bird. I’m afraid this post is like that. Among the many unanswered questions about electric vehicles (EVs) is whether we have enough of the necessary minerals — lithium, cobalt, nickel — to manufacture their batteries.

(The vast majority of these factories are not in the United States[1]) Can we — I suppose as a species instead of a polity — keep all these factories running? For how long?

Now, I was in Canada for the Bre-X scandal, “the most elaborate fraud in the history of mining,” which involved fake (“salted”) samples of gold; Bre-X had a market capitalization of $4.4 billion before the fraud was exposed. So I’m not disposed to take reporting on mineral reserves on faith, and most of the sources I read seemed to be talking their book. (Those in the Naked Capitalism readership who are minerals fans will correct me on this.) I had hoped to begin from the material characteristics of lithium, nickel, and gold, from which the mining technique would follow, and combine that with the location of deposits to come to some sort of rough estimate of supply, and of the risks involved.

For example, lithium (Li) is so reactive that it never occurs freely in nature. It dissolves in brine, so one approach is to look for subsurface brines under dry lake beds, pump the brine into evaporation ponds, and when the brine is sufficiently concentrated, extract the lithium and then pump the result back under the lake bed. This is the approach used for the world’s largest lithium deposits, in the “Lithium Triangle” (Argentina, Chile and Bolivia). By the Monroe Doctrine, we should be controlling that piece on the board, but Germany and China seem to be doing the investing. So, that looks a lot like fracking re-injection to me, an environmental risk, and there’s geo-political risk as well.

Cobalt (Co), like lithium and nickel, is only found in chemically combined form, as a metallic-lustered ore, most often as a by-product of copper and nickel mining in the Congo, where there are also seams of cobalt close to the surface. As a result, there are “artisanal miners” — what a phrase — who scour the mine tailings for shiny cobalt, or dig informal shafts. Here there are political risks, the Congo being what it is, and public relations risks, since artisanal miners are often children, and who wants a supply chain (that’s undeniably) tainted by child labor?

Nickel (Ni) is mined worldwide (Indonesia, the Philippines, Russia, New Caledonia, Australia, and Canada, among others. “Nickel mining occurs through extractive metallurgy, which is a material science that covers various types of ore, the washing process, concentration and separation, chemical processes and the extraction process.” So we don’t have artisanal nickel mining, and the environmental effects are no more than normally bad for “extractive metallurgy”, which is awful. Given the countries where it’s mined, the political risks seem minimal[2].

But — and this is the longest windup ever, I feel like Luis Tiant — that approach is simply too complicated, and doesn’t lead me to the question of supply. So I’m going to move ahead to a topic-based review of the literature. This is a topic I hope to return to, so I hope readers will, as it were, provide me with some paths through the swamp, or even give me a line on the bird.

It’s Not Clear We Have the Necessary Lithium, Cobalt, and Nickel

From the UK’s Natural History Museum:

There are currently 31.5 million cars on the UK roads, covering 252.5 billion miles per year.

If we wanted to replace all these with electric vehicles today (assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation batteries), it would take the following:

  • 207,900 tonnes of cobalt – just under twice the annual global production
  • 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE) – three quarters the world’s production
  • at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium – nearly the entire world production of neodymium
  • 2,362,500 tonnes of copper – more than half the world’s production in 2018

Even if we only wanted to ensure an annual supply of electric vehicles, from 2035 as pledged, the UK would need to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry.

For the UK alone. As John Petersen points out in Seeking Alpha:

Bernstein Research analyzed the incremental technology metal requirements for an ~88% transition from ICE to EV. This table summarizes their conclusions and compares those requirements with the current global production base for each technology metal:

While aluminum doesn’t present insurmountable issues and increasing graphite and lithium production from modest current levels is theoretically possible, doubling nickel production over a period of 17 years would require herculean effort and doubling copper production would be almost impossible. Since cobalt is a byproduct of copper mining in the Congo and nickel mining in other parts of the world, the only path I’ve seen that has a chance of growing to meet anticipated demand is sub-sea mining. While extensive work in the 1970s proved that sub-sea mining was technically feasible, the only commercial sub-sea operations are diamond mines in offshore Africa.

And we’re on deadline.

Battery Production Is Not Green


“Like any mining process, [lithium mining] is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth and the local wells,” said Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert from the University of Chile, in a 2009 interview. “This isn’t a green solution – it’s not a solution at all.” But lithium may not be the most problematic ingredient of modern rechargeable batteries…. Unlike most metals, which are not toxic when they’re pulled from the ground as metal ores, cobalt is “uniquely terrible,” according to Gleb Yushin, chief technical officer and founder of battery materials company Sila Nanotechnologies.

I understood about artisanal mining and child labor, but I didn’t understand that children were handling a toxic material.

Battery Recycling Isn’t a Thing

It’s difficult. From

Whereas lithium batteries are said to be 95 per cent recyclable, the practice of recycling them is more easily said than done. Throughout their lifespan, lithium batteries undergo irreversible damage, meaning that they can’t simply be repurposed. Instead, they need to be entirely taken apart, the lithium extracted, and then re-manufactured. But even this is an oversimplification.

Battery manufacturers incorporate several additives into the electrolyte liquid in the Li-ion battery. The purpose of these additives is to improve the battery in many ways, such as by speeding up the manufacturing process, or making the battery more durable in hot and cold weather. But when manufacturers keep the battery cocktail a secret, repurposing the precious minerals contained within becomes difficult and, therefore, expensive.

Moreover, the electrolyte mixture is the component of the battery that has been known to explode when handled incorrectly, for instance, if it is subjected to high temperatures. This means that any attempt at creating a recycling process will need to find a way to ensure that the batteries are dismantled in a safe manner.

With these difficulties in mind, it’s not surprising that recycling rates for lithium battery is really low; only 2 per cent of lithium batteries in Australia are recycled, with the rest left to rot in landfills. But the problem does not necessarily come from members of the public carelessly tossing their cracked iPhones into the trash.

It might be argued that sustainable recycling infrastructure should come from the car companies—a process that is still not cost effective compared to market lithium costs, and therefore provides little incentive. “Recycled lithium is as much as five times the cost of lithium produced from the least costly brine based process,” Waste-Management-World stated. Even with our best efforts, recycled lithium is not pure enough to produce batteries, and the material ends up being used for non-battery purposes.

Recycling will be a big problem. From CFact:

Most electric vehicles in use today are yet to reach the end of their cycle. The first all-electric car to be powered by lithium-ion batteries, the Tesla Roadster, made its market debut in 2008. This means the first generation of electric vehicle batteries have yet to reach the recycling stage. An estimated 11 million tons of spent lithium-ion batteries will flood our markets by 2025, without systems in place to handle them.

It doesn’t seem likely that the externalities of disposing of, let alone recycling, lithium-ion batteries have gotten much attention in the EV industry, let alone from regulators. I’m picturing an enormous pile of batteries catching on fire somewhere, but I have a vivid imagination.

The Prevalance of Magical Thinking

From the recent Benchmark Minerals Intelligence conference:

“Sarah Maryssael, Tesla’s global supply manager for battery metals, told a closed-door Washington conference of miners, regulators and lawmakers that the automaker sees a shortage of key EV minerals coming in the near future, according to the sources.”

Update: Reuters updated their story to that a Tesla spokesman said: the comments were industry-specific and referring to the long-term supply challenges that may occur with regards to these metals.

With EVs at 2% of the market, I suppose in the short term there are no problems, yes. However:

[Tesla] rarely comments on supply problems at the mineral level [odd] and when it has in the past, it mainly brushed off concerns.

That’s partly because cobalt has been the main concern for many automakers and Tesla’s use in cobalt in its proprietary [i.e., not recyclable in the general case] battery chemistry is somewhat limited.

Nickel and copper are the most common minerals in its batteries, but there are also the most commonly mined.

It’s interesting that they are now warning that there could be shortages. It’s another indication that the growth in the industry is going to happen fast in the next few years with so many different mass market EV programs in the work.

Those are good problems to have because they indicate that we are going in the right direction and they are somewhat easily solvable. They just require investments.

“They just require investments.” And investment is a zero-time task!


I wish I felt I had my arms round the material completely, but no doubt that will come with future study. (EV stans, don’t @ me.) Do any of the old codgers in the readership remember Saturday Night Live’s sketches on Toonces the Driving Cat? This video is seconds long:

That’s what the EV discourse reminds me of. For most of the time Toonces was on the road, past results did indeed predict future performance (“we are going in the right direction”). Until they didn’t! Was the only requirement “more investment”? No. Cats like Elon Musk shouldn’t be driving anything!


[1] Simon Moores, Managing Director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence: “Right now, the US produces 1% of global lithium supply and only 7% of refined lithium chemical supply, while China produces 51%. For cobalt, the US has zero mining capacity and zero chemicals capacity whilst China controls 80% of this second stage.” It’s not clear that ramping up domestic production will be easy, especially on public land. And developing a nickel mine, at least, can take a decade.

[2] Making this statement from Tesla all the more odd: “Tesla claims that the nickel in its vehicles is 100% reusable at the end of life, but refused to disclose to the Guardian where the nickel in its car batteries is sourced from. In a statement a Tesla spokesperson said suppliers were ‘three or four layers removed from Tesla. It is obviously quite difficult to have perfect knowledge about everything that happens this far down in the supply chain, but we’ve worked extremely hard to gather as much information as possible and to ensure that our standards are being met.'” If there’s nothing to deny, why all the deniability?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Ptb

    Interesting stuff.

    I’d venture that doubling global production of the main industrial metals in 15 years will happen without fanfare. The raw material prices of Cu, Ni etc could increase several x (probably won’t) and the finished product price would see a minor impact only.

    I am more curious a out Li and Co. Not because they are rare. Li for example is more abundant than Cu and Ni, though that doesn’t tell the whole story b/c concentrated deposits are needed. However, with Li and Co, existing global production is starting from a much lower point (~500x lower? than Cu/Ni), and the chemistry is more troublesome. So probably new mining processes will be implemented for these elements to get the necessary scale. Nd is the only “rare earth” element I saw listed in the article.

    From a pollution perspective, it’s a real issue too. The proprietary voodoo in the electrolytes, vs recycling, is a really interesting point.

    1. JE

      As someone monitoring the planned Cu and Ni sulfide mining projects in Northern Minnesota, I cringe to think of global demand jacking up the prices on these minerals. Sulfide mining is one of the “extractive metallurgy” processes alluded to above and once the lid is off these sulfide mines you can kiss the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness goodbye. The only real answer here is to stop f**king driving. Pick any personal transport technology and there is a global population (read: demand) that will break the planet. We’re there for fossil fuel cars and what the above is really showing is that we’ve already passed it for EVs.

  2. UserFriendly

    Just wait until you start trying to factor in the metal needs for wind, pv, and storage.
    I stumbled across this the other day.

    Grohol described the EU’s rare earths situation “as losing on all fronts, from mining and processing to recycling, which something which is quite worrying”. In order to secure supply, he says “we are for diversification and we value partnerships with other countries”.

    That site has a whole series ‘Metals in the Circular economy’ worth reading, but as usual has a way too rosie spin.

  3. Linden S.

    The U.K. only numbers are truly unbelievable. I wish I had seen it framed that way earlier. Thank you for the excellent article.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Yes, that framing doesn’t seem prevalent. Lots of pom pom waving. Very little on the fact that the EV industry will have made an enormous bet on a technology for which the materials are in short supply. And I understand the argument that the demand will bring forth innovations yadda yadda yadda. This has happened in the past. But to me that means that adding EVs to a bundle of climate change solutions (like reforestation, changing meat production, renewables, etc.) makes no sense at all. Because we are betting the biosphere on the solutions being right. But that is exactly how EVs are being marketed.

      1. Briny

        Wearing both the engineering and economist hats right now, I’ve already come to the conclusion that our current battery technology is unfit for purpose as a climate solution. Which blows. And anyone that thinks that it’s suited for our renewables has LSD in their water-supply.

        Perhaps that’s just me, but I’m not often wrong on evaluating technological solutions.

      2. Steve H.

        This comment is thus far the only mention of ‘biosphere’ on this page. That’s the issue.

        I can’t speak to supply, but I can to production. Two large issues pop, the energy chain and the hazardous materials management. Both nuclear and these type of batteries require extraction and refining. Right now the extraction requires burning fossil fuels; just focusing on the end-state is similar to industrial agriculture, it looks cheap until you start counting in solar-years burned. And metals extraction, for these batteries and for nuclear, is absolutely filthy. Mining tailings and acid mine drainage are not just short-and-near-term problems, they can exist for millennia and destroy aquifers. And and, they do not require even 20th-century technology, which makes waste tracking very difficult. Kids for labor and dumping the waste off-book have been standard practice in the industry for, again, millennia.

        If we’re going to expand to space, clearly solar energy (including fossil fuels and geothermal) is not the way, deep in the dark. But space is already a very hazardous environment, so toxic waste in the asteroid belt is a subset of existing problems. We are tuned to this biosphere, in this particular state.

        Moar power does not mean greater fitness. See the Great Oxygenation Event. Smarter ain’t necessarily wiser.

        1. Anthony K Wikrent

          There are engineering solutions to most of these problems – the real problem is the engineering cost is deemed too high by the corporate-capitalist system that insists on focusing on short term profitability with minimal consideration to social concerns. It is the role of political systems to force economic actors to act in ways that do not violate social concerns. This is the fundamental reason neoliberalism and libertarianism must be considered hostile attacks on sovereign political systems. Yet, actors such as the Koch brothers are allowed to continue pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting and proselytizing neoliberal and libertarian doctrine that “the state” is always “in the way” and the funding of government is “theft.” Any solution to the problems of the environment and climate change are going to involve using the state’s monopoly on violence to reign in, or eliminate, bad actors such as the Kochs. Basic Ethics and When Violence Is Justified But the left is crippled by anti-military beliefs, which are justifiably based on how elites have misused states’ monopoly on violence to enforce and defend the neoliberal corporate-capitalist world order. Thus, the first thing that must done is to clarify the thinking of a large enough number of people on these issues, and then replace elites that refuse to “bend with the wind.”

          In my opinion, we are basically in the position Milton Friedman and the neoliberal Chicago School outlined in the 1960s and 1970s: we must put forth and develop the ideas that will be available to policy makers to seize upon when they are compelled to respond to the next crisis. Ie, the shock doctrine. One of my greatest worries is that the political centers of power that are opposed to neoliberalism and libertarianism have bought into deeply pessimistic anti-technology doctrines that create crippling mental boundaries against generating solution ideas. This is the same problem that USA economists such as Henry Carey and E. Peshine Smith combated in the 19th century with their incessant critique of Smith / Ricardo / Malthus British imperial economics. The USA economists won the battle in the 19th century, allowing the industrialization of USA, Germany, Russia, Japan, but the battle in the past century has been lost, with British imperial economics revived in the doctrines of neoliberalism, despite the glaring examples of their being rejected to enable the industrialization of Taiwan, South Korea, and a few other countries.

        2. Briny

          True, which is why that’s where I’ve always set my eyes on shifting as much exrtractive and many other industries to space. I’m a dreamer, though, if not the only one ;-). Just let me up there, I’m not coming back.

      3. d

        Well then we only have a few choices, its oil and its like, electric,solar, wind, geothermal and hydrogen. None of them are even close to being perfect to being even to being close to being environmentally ‘friendly’ . So that leaves only a few choices, we either eliminate 90% of the earths population in some way, or we do the best we can with what we do have today, trying to make it better in the future.

  4. Geo

    Thanks for this. One of the things that has bothered me for some time about “green energy” and a lot of the new tech is the reliance on batteries and digital tech. To my simple thinking it seems like a lesser of two evils. Better than fossil fuels in the immediate but brings with it a whole new set of problems.

    Even the company behind “FairPhone” – a fair trade, eco-conscious smart phone – admit on their website that they can’t account for the eco impact of much that goes into the making of their phones. And that’s a company whose soul mission is to create tech that is sustainable.

    Same with lightbulbs. Old ones burned much more energy but the new ones have so much more gadgetry inside them that they seem to me to be quite wasteful and worse for disposal.

    I don’t pretend to be an expert on any of this and am open to any corrections on my perception but it seems to me our best hope is to accept our current way of life isn’t sustainable. That no “new tech” based on electricity that is supposed to sustain our current way of life for a global population like we have will do anything but annihilate the environment.

    Maybe that’s just my nihilism talking but I’ve not found much that remedies the negative thinking. Maybe we should all become Amish?

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Maybe we should all become Amish?

      “You may not be interested in the Amish, but the Amish are interested in you.”

      It has occurred to me that another solution is to set a cost of $1000 on drivers’ licenses. That would create some demand for public transport…

      1. redleg

        Public transport doesn’t work for rural areas, or for growing food.

        This is one reason that rural USA votes red- Dems ignore the costs of living and working outside of large cities, and the (widely spaced) residents have little incentive to vote blue.

        1. d

          Plus there is a different problem, most major US cities aren’t geographically small . Mass transit works in Europe because geographically they aren’t as big. When you measure your commute in 10 of miles, its harder to have efficient mass transit. And just exactly how does changing from private vehicles to buses or trains help? Don’t most buses run diesel …and most trains too? Never mind the issue of getting passengers on and off quickly. When I was in Germany many years ago, you could go any where by train and your wait for the next one going your way, wasn’t long. How would we do that in LAa?

  5. Reify99

    Ah, the conundrum of products that are “green” in their operation but polluting to manufacture. There must be some maximum “green” utility derived in operation in order to balance the pollution necessary to produce the product. I don’t have that calculation, however.

    The author of the investment article below posits that the more cobalt needed for a product the less likely the industry is to successfully compete for cobalt supplies that fail to keep pace with rising demand.

    He suggests that higher cobalt costs will more easily be tolerated by those industries where cobalt represents a small percentage of total cost, eg, cell phones, compared to say, EVs where the battery is a huge per cent of manufacturing expense.
    I think his charts are good.

  6. Carolinian

    Lithium is dangerous stuff. A few weeks ago the bottom of my Samsung laptop suddenly got hot and started to smell. I immediately turned it off and the computer probably would have turned itself off as these batteries have a thermal sensor for just this reason. With a new battery my laptop is fine, but it’s hard to see a climate solution based on such an uncertain technology.

    However better battery systems are being heavily researched. If we can go to the Moon (PBS, tonight) we can probably do it.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > If we can go to the Moon (PBS, tonight) we can probably do it.

      I think that’s magical thinking. We aren’t that country any more.

      I’m trying to get my mind around the question of what direction the capitalist elites will go (they are the ones with the power, after all; the scientists have no political power, as we see all too clearly). I mean, besides a global dieback, Jackpot-style. Fundamentally, I don’t think they have collectively made up their minds (“Too much money (and too few places to invest it“).

    2. Math is Your Friend

      “Lithium is dangerous stuff. **** , but it’s hard to see a climate solution based on such an uncertain technology.

      However better battery systems are being heavily researched. **** we can probably do it.”

      There seems to be a common misconception in many public discusssions these days that the world can be made perfectly safe, and that a few anecdotal accounts of problems therefore indicate a solution or technology which is not acceptable.

      You have to look at the numbers, not listen to tales of an individual event.

      And you have to be realistic. Anything that increases human capabilities has a potential danger. Running with stone tipped arrows is a risk. Making a fire is a risk. Eating food not freshly killed is a risk. Any form of stored power is a risk. Any method of generating power is a risk.

      You may see a pattern here…

      There are billions of lithium batteries in North America. How many of them suffer catastrophic failure in use, as a percentage? I haven’t tried to look it up, but you will need a lot of leading zeros. My personal collection of lithium cells runs somewhere in the three digits, and none of them have ever done anything worse than stop working after a period of use. The experience of most of us is probably similar.

      I doubt that one in ten of storage products being researched will prove feasible, and any of them that can store the amounts of energy required will carry a risk.

      Consider that a battery for a good flexible electric vehicle (reasonable speed, carrying capacity, capability of operating in a range of conditions) will have to store the energy equivalent of around 50 litres of gasoline.

      Looking that up, that’s about 45 MJ/kg or 32 MJ/litre… so…

      … a vehicle load of energy is roughly 1600 MJ.

      Finding a not quite convenient calculator on the net, that comes out to the equivalent of 0.00038240917782027 kT of TNT, or about 382 kilograms of TNT.

      IIRC in terms of mass ratios involved, that’s rather larger than the bursting charge in a 800kg (1700 lb) high explosive bomb, utilizing WW2 explosives, which are likely still used because they are cheap and castable.

      Any car fully charged for normal driving ranges (about 600 km/400 mi) will therefore contain energy similar to a 1500 pound bomb (military aircraft dropped bomb, where half the mass is the casing).

      Some of you may be thinking that the equivalent mass of TNT seems large for the amount of gasoline… a good first intuition until you consider that the vehicle powered by liquid fuels is only carrying the fuel part of the reaction, and is picking up the oxidizer from the atmosphere as it goes. The explosive, on the other hand, must contain both, pushing the mass way up. The fundamental chemical reactions are similar, with carbon and hydrogen forming the major fuels in both vehicular applications and conventional 20th century explosives).

      This leads to a second consideration. The liquid fuel does not release all its energy at once in the case of a fire, because it has to wait for the oxygen to arrive at the site of combustion.

      Batteries, like explosives, contain all the energy, which means that certain forms of failure may release all the energy immediately. This is not a characteristic of lithium, which is merely one of dozens or scores of possible battery chemistries, but of the stored electrical potential. For that reason, storing that much energy so it cannot release suddenly is challenging.

      There may be feasible safe battery technologies, but the mix of characteristics required for stored energy electric vehicles are very demanding physically, practically, and economically. If you can make a safe car battery for a million dollars it will be a flop. If you can make one for 10,000 dollars people might buy them. If you can make them for 2,000 dollars you have a winner.

      Science and technology can do wonderful things, but they cannot necessarily do everything one might wish, and often if they can, not to a short schedule. From effect in a lab to functional prototype may take 10 or 20 or 30 years. Getting to a real world pre-production instance may take another 5 or 10, then you have to develop manufacturing techniques or tools, supply chains, sources or raw materials, and get your device designed into products.

      And some times the practicalities, and physics, and economics do not co-operate, which is why some of us are still waiting for the first practical flying car, since as long as we can remember. That one may be a few centuries away. Bah.

      At any rate, while safety is important, the cost of rejecting a new technology because it is not perfectly safe may well do more harm than good.

      I am not big fan of lithium batteries in some applications, and less so the larger they become. I find car sized batteries marginal in safety, but I don’t think we have enough data to fully evaluate them, nor is the technology necessarily sufficiently mature to make a firm decision.


      PS – Ooops. Had to rewrite, as I slipped a decimal the first time and came up with 38 kg of TNT, which did seem a little small. Unless I made another error somewhere… please feel encouraged to check the math.

      PPS – With some changes in examples and detailed facts, the same arguments apply to chemical plants, almost all of which use potentially dangerous chemicals because, among other things, they have to be reactive in order to produce new useful molecular species…. or to most other technologies or fields of applied knowledge. The really scary person is not a physicist or chemist, it’s a biologist or medical specialist.

  7. Reify99

    Contribution to the ‘Energy Commons’ and the durability of a ‘green device’ need to be deemed great enough to outweigh the pollution created by it’s manufacture. Zero emissions mass transit taking precedence over personal autonomous EVs, for example.
    Governments need to continue to subsidize these efforts for the greatest good and negotiate for the supply of scarce ingredients. And not sneakily undermine the efforts toward progress. (See recent concessions to big petroleum working to the detriment of the ethanol industry.)

    It is difficult as a layman to educate oneself about this stuff. What I can find online, if not pay walled is often a skanky, talk your own book kind of thing. Still I glean things now and then.

    I do think we are making progress.

    Renewable energy is becoming the “Base” source of power and, increasingly, fossil fuel (without coal), is being relegated to a peak power, “dispatchable” resource, filling in the gaps, a reversal of roles for ‘fossil vs renewable’ in the last few years. There is a weeping and gnashing of teeth about this in certain circles which tells me it’s real.

    Battery technology is what will get us past the final 20% of fossil fuel usage to 100% renewable. Are we getting there fast enough? Dunno.
    Figuring out who the snake oil salesmen are is tricky.

    1. Joe Well

      Unfortunately, US infrastructure is so dysfunctional that I don’t hold out much hope for that. It’s a similar story in most other countries.

      We could, however, flood the roads that already exist with buses and motorcoaches. If we gave them dedicated lanes they could quickly become more popular than private vehicles. Fully electric buses already exist, but even short of that, we’d vastly lower emissions with buses.

      In the end, we aren’t doing this because of fossil fuel industry + automobile industry + the Republican Party + the great suburban dream + the First World horror many people seem to have of being in an enclosed space with strangers.

      1. Summer

        “In the end, we aren’t doing this because of fossil fuel industry + automobile industry + the Republican Party + the great suburban dream + the First World horror many people seem to have of being in an enclosed space with strangers.”

        And never forget…no one is going to take out a loan for a train ride.

        1. John King

          Plus our economy is designed to require workers to be able to switch jobs. You can no longer choose your residence based on the assumption of your current work commute. If you choose an apartment so that you can use mass transit to get to work, what are the odds that you will have the same job and a similar commute in 5 or 10 years?

          1. Joe Well

            I’m thinking about a massive expansion of bus service so this wouldn’t be an issue. As it is, for the center of some major US metros, especially NYC, car ownership is the exception rather than the rule.

            In most of Latin America, with ample bus service and minimal metros, most people commute by bus, including smaller buses for smaller routes. The system would be great except for the traffic jams create by the private automobiles of the upper-middle class.

            The bottom line is: the middle class despise buses, but they are our best transportation hope, and if everyone abandoned private cars and used them, urban transportation would be a dream.

        2. Joe Well

          I forgot, the financial industry is also invested in our earth-destroying hyper-consumption.

    2. Stadist

      But what about private markets and most of all, Freedom?

      Will anyone think of the Freedom?

      And yes, I’m being ironic with this and especially the Freedom part.

  8. Pookah Harvey

    China is already switching their emphasis from battery powered cars to hydrogen cells. From Bloomberg;

    In 2009, the government launched “Ten Cities, Thousand Vehicles,” a program to stimulate electric-vehicle sales through large-scale pilots. A decade later, after tens of billions of dollars in subsidies and extensive policy support, China is the world’s battery-electric king.

    Can the nation repeat that feat with fuel cells? It’s certainly going to try. As far back as 2015, the government targeted 1 million such vehicles on its roads by 2030. The ambition and momentum for fuel cells has picked up over the last year, as companies and cities commit to vehicles, technology and infrastructure. The first indication that something had changed came in January, when the state-backed Securities Journal reported that the government was preparing to re-launch the “Ten Cities” program for fuel-cell cars.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Well, that’s great. We’re going to spend trillions of dollars and some decades replacing the ICE infrastructure with EVs and then more trillions and decades moving to fuel cells?

      And given that we’re working to deadline, the trillions are less important than the decades.

      1. Pookah Harvey

        They seem to serve different markets. EV’s for urban areas and hydrogen for rural or long distance. The infrastructure for hydrogen is expensive but already developed and in service for the LNG industry.

    2. Jon S

      Fuel cell cars require platinum. If you think we’re low on cobalt, you should see how little platinum there is in the world. Fuel cells are wildly expensive for a reason.

      1. Briny

        We’ve already identified an entire family of alloy that replaces Platinum, rather handily too, in fuel cells.

  9. JBird4049

    Three words: build trains instead.

    Not the sexy like “green energy” so not much push for it. Even smoky old fashioned steam engines might be good enough, never mind the improved much lower emissions ones already designed, but unfunded/built, or trains of any engine type or speed seem to be DOA in the United States. Although with the oceans of capital running around, one would think that blackmailing or bribing asking legislators into some eminent domain seizures for increasing the right of ways, or even just refurbishing, the many ones that still exist.

  10. ambrit

    One detail about the needed mining expansion connects, recursively, to the lecture I saw a while ago done by Ballard, the ocean explorer. He mentioned the next world cruise of an ocean exploration vessel run by his Ocean Exploration Trust. He pointed out that they will begin in the Pacific basin by looking at subsea mineral deposits and possible mining methods. He was quite adamant that subsea mining will be a major component of the world raw materials supply system, and sooner rather than later.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > subsea mining will be a major component of the world raw materials supply system, and sooner rather than later.

      Good angle for the capitalist elite; another “lease on life” as it were. But as the Seeking Alpha article points out, we are very far from commercialization. And we’re working to deadline.

      1. ambrit

        First, deadline for how many of us, as in, how many left after the Jackpot? (I am becoming a believer in Gibson’s “Jackpot” theory.)
        Second, Ballard described his ‘career’ as being primarily one involving Naval Intelligence. That’s a clear cut connection to the Technologists and Visionary Elites. He also promotes “telepresence” and other ultra technological systems. A definite ‘Futurist.’ (I’m tempted mightily to associate Ballard with the Futurist Movement of a century ago.)

      1. ambrit

        Like every other mining endeavour in history; the ecological impacts will be of secondary importance.

  11. Joe Well

    I’m admittedly not well informed on this subject, but, why we can’t just skip batteries by inventing a system for directly powering electric (or more likely, hybrid) vehicles using overhead wires or some kind of “third rail”?

    This already exists for “trackless trolleys” like for some routes here in Boston. (Apparently they are called “trolleybuses” elsewhere.)

    In Germany, they’re supposedly experimenting with overhead wiring for semi trucks on highways.

    Presumably, vehicles could use ICE to get onto the overhead wire network, which would only exist on heavily traveled roads and highways, not rural areas or the far reaches of exurbia.

    Of course, there’s probably a reason why Google isn’t returning a lot more results for this, so I’d appreciate someone explaining why this isn’t technically feasible.

      1. Joe Well

        OK, I think I wasn’t clear in my first post. I’m assuming that we can fairly easily engineer a way to switch from one set of overhead wires to another. Certainly, it would be more feasible than finding new sources of lithium. So, not running on limited fixed routes.

        Basically, my question, which may be foolish, is: why isn’t it feasible to put up wires like that on every urban street, major road, and highway? Not just a very few routes. And why isn’t, say, Denmark doing that? Or some city in China?

        >>Your solution might as well be a train.

        But wouldn’t the required investment in infrastructure be a lot lower than for trains? Especially since they’d run on existing roads?

        1. Yves Smith

          No, power lines are at most on one side of the road, not in the center. And the height of the lines varies greatly.

          And what happens when a car parks? It can’t stay connected like a trolley without blocking cars behind it. And are drivers really supposed to carry ladders to reattach themselves to a high voltage line?

          And I haven’t even gotten to intersections or turns into malls or schools.

          Please think things through. This should have been obvious.

          1. Terence D

            If possible search for Rose City Transit electric busses, Portland Oregon. as child I rode around on electric busses that received their power from the overhead lines, main routes mostly. Intersections “where interesting”, the I recollect spring loaded connections would occasionally ( no way for me as a child to know ) would disconnect in the middle of a turn/intersection, bus would stop, driver would walk/run around to the rear grab the line from the connection “boom” ( I lack the correct term ) which hung from the back of the bus and adjust the connection ( touch the wire(s) ) and the bus would proceeds on the route. Bonneville hydro power source of electricity. And yes they worked in the rain in Portland in the 1950’s, I suspect the busses where 1930/40 design. Dense wiring overhead, more so than light rail as the electric busses had more routes than “rail”.

            1. Yves Smith

              I’m familiar with electric busses; they had them in Boston. The point is that this requires a lot of custom infrastructure and even then only to run on designated and busses run on those routes in sequence and only go off at the end (back to my “what about parking?” point).

              I know you mean to be helpful but treating this not well thought out proposal you are dignifying a reader not even having done the most basic thinking, which isn’ helpful.

        2. SJ

          In the test system here in Germany the trucks have batteries and just use the overhead power lines for charging them so no help there.
          Fuel cell vehicles also use batteries between the fuel cell and the inverter as fuel cells don’t like supplying the very high peak currents that the motors need. So not much help there (although the batteries are much smaller).
          Trains are a better idea, we already have a lot of rail and river transport in Europe, it could easily be expanded (and surely will be). The Rhine does occasionally run out of water though….

  12. PlutoniumKun

    Just a few fairly random points:

    I think of all the materials cobol is the key one – there seems little that can be done to make it less polluting or create more of it. The rare earths are nowhere near as ‘rare’ as people assume. Only Cobol is genuinely rare, hard to replace, and horrible to extract.

    So, that looks a lot like fracking re-injection to me, an environmental risk, and there’s geo-political risk as well.

    This isn’t the same as fracking re-injection – its occurring at much shallower depths and is essentially replacing the material like with like (with just the lithium extracted). The risk profile is very different, primarily because you don’t need to go through many rock layers and no fracturing is required.

    A key difficulty in assessing mineral reserves is that many mineral deposits are mixed – the fact that a mine is called, for example a ‘lead’ mine may have more to do with the economics of processing and extraction than the actual composition. I regularly hike over the spoil heaps of a few 19th Century lead mines – the spoil heaps are full of metal (including silver and nickel) ores, many of which could well be used one day if the pricing and technology is right. The mines opened during periods of very high lead prices during the boom in church construction in the mid-late 19th Century (yes, churches were the main users of lead, all those lovely roof profiles). The point of this is that much of the required materials could well be extracted from existing mines, or even spoil heaps. Historically, supply of minerals has always always proven more elastic than was assumed from looking at raw figures. There are remarkably few examples in industrial history of the world simply ‘running out’ of key resources.

    Related to this is that industry has only been looking for lithium for a comparatively short time – even in Ireland, a very small and intensively studied country for minerals (Ireland has huge copper, lead, silver and nickel reserves which have been exploited for 2 centuries or more), there are potentially massive reserves of lithium in little studied salt deposits, they are only starting to look at them now. There are potentially gigantic lithium reserves in the ‘pre-salt’ geology off Brazil and Nigeria – these deposits are essentially the cover for the oil resources there – but nobody has really looked to see if there is much lithium in the salts themselves. If so, they could probably be quite easily mined as brine extraction (maybe even using existing drilling infrastructure). Put simply, the world is almost certainly not short of extractable lithium if the price is right.

    Another factor is that the raw figures assume EV cars will weigh the same as ICE cars. This isn’t necessarily so. The BMW i3 has a kerb weight significantly less than a Golf – maybe a third less a typical mid-sized sedan or small SUV. If car manufacturers focused on reducing weight, then the total requirements for minerals would be very significantly less (but we’d need more carbon fibre, etc., that’s a different issue). And if fast charging networks become very widespread then EV’s simply won’t require the type of range that consumers now demand.

    A wild card in this is that there is massive demand for lithium batteries now in uses which have little to do with a requirement for light weight – lithium batteries are now used for static storage because they are cheaper, when in reality it would be better to use alternative battery types. Tesla Walls are an obvious example. So this creates slack on the demand side if someone starts producing more Vanadium or other forms of battery.

    It should also be said of course that terrible and all as the mining for these minerals is, even in the worst case scenario it pales next to the horrors of the oil industry.

    It goes without saying though that a complete switch to EV’s will produce major bottlenecks and may be unachievable in total, especially if car use in China and India continues to rise. The valuable materials are much more valuable to society to be used in direct electricity production and public transport (for example, lithium battery powered trains may well be a game changer for many existing underutilsed networks). And also – somewhat under the radar – a big game changer could well be smaller battery powered vehicles such as scooters and electric bikes, which have exploded in use in a very short time, and are almost certainly displacing many car journeys within cities.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Thanks, this is extremely useful (though COBOL is the programming language, Cobalt the mineral).

      >There are potentially gigantic lithium reserves in the ‘pre-salt’ geology off Brazil and Nigeria – these deposits are essentially the cover for the oil resources there – but nobody has really looked to see if there is much lithium in the salts themselves.

      OK, but what’s the timeline? It’s ten years to get a nickel mine going, and how many years for exploration? We’re on deadline…

      Adding, what worries me about the injection of brine is that it’s much more concentrated and gawd knows what else has been added to it. I know the process isn’t exactly the same as fracking reinjection.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Yup, sorry, I’ve no idea what sort of brain fade caused me to type that.

        Ironically enough of course, cobalt is also the major component of B12, a vital vitamin for brain development, which I occasionally take. Maybe I should take more…

        1. ambrit

          Take it every day. I do, and my brain still works with the efficiency of a fifty year old’s!
          Seriously, take it every day. It has been investigated and has beneficial effects regarding cognitive ability and gives a boost in the morning.

        2. redleg

          One of the largest copper-nickel deposits in the world, mined or not, is in northern MN. Roughly ten years to map the deposit, and ten years (and counting) to get the permits. $900M spent just on the first mine permitting process so far.

          Part of the problem is that the environmentalists are fighting any mining tooth and nail, in an area that has (relatively cleaner) iron mining for 140 years, over concerns that mining will wreck the local forests and wild rice wetlands. Since mining is extractive, it will certainly have a significant impact. But not mining the Cu-Ni-Pt will also wreck the same ecosystem through carbon-combustion climate disruption, and do it more efficiently and at a larger scale than mining will. In other words, the mining that is necessary to reduce or stop global climate disruption is being resisted by environmentalists because of local impacts. It’s a catch-22 at a local level, and raises questions on the morality of disrupting the ecosystem of a small area to mitigate a different but global problem that will disturb that ecosystem anyway.
          Many of the environmentalists protesting (some are actual lobbyists) this are my dear friends, so I hit this doesn’t come off as hippy-punching, but some of them don’t recognize that environmental issues are never black and white. Unless reverting to a 17th century economy is the goal.

          One interesting part of the Minnesota Cu-Ni-Pt mining plan is one of the companies intends to “burn” the sulfur produced by mining (the ore is sulfide) as a fuel for electrical generation. This should (it’s still only a proposal) produce enough electricity to run the mine, the mineral separation plant, the water treatment system, and the nearby towns- i.e. the entire operation will be carbon negative. Its a major innovation of it works as planned.

  13. Ignacio

    Thank you for this post Lambert. I have stored it in my review list if for some reason I have to recall some data. I think that this points to something that policy makers try to avoid which is, as other commenters have signalled, energy conservation. We apparently refuse to recognize that energy usage must fall by a lot. Sum 25 million vehicles in Spain to those 31 in the UK and many more elsewhere to some 1.000 MM vehicles around the world and think of Lithium mining in Mars to solve the problem.

    Yesterday I did a web search using “energy conservation” with or without some other qualifiers in both “whole web search mode” and “only news mode” to see If I could reach any interesting discussion like this one you propose but really nothing interesting surfaced. One problem migth be using english wording alone but searches in spanish didn’t improve the results. A second problem was search bias (I used Duck Duck go) that tends to produce too many links from selected sites like MarketWatch while ignoring many others. Another search in Pubmed gave better results, although limited to the academy. In most cases the papers were published in pay-walled Elsevier. There is a lot of bullshit science in these publications and one cannot check when only the abstract is available.

    From this search I concluded that when energy conservation is mentioned it usually refers to the development of energy saving technologies, recycling etc. In very, very few instances I found something about energy saving practices like just consuming less, making more durable stuff (selling less) or travelling less. Nothing about forbidding something like, for instance, luxury yatchs, private planes or manufacturing transient stuff. Discussions on this are widely avoided. Always positive, never negative is the motto. It is as if everybody is in MarketWatch mode. No wonder why the EIA Outlook foresees a never ending increase of energy usage in every country.

    This is a natural human bias, I believe, but we somehow must find some kind of positive negation. Something like the infamous growth promoting austerity invented by “creative” economists but not directed to human suffering. We have to find the happiness of loosing weigth and feeling better about it, the good feeling of saying “NO” when somebody is trying to convince you to buy latest smart-bullshit.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > We apparently refuse to recognize that energy usage must fall by a lot.

      The dreaded lifestyle changes… Hard to get individuals to do even when it’s a lifesaving health measure. Harder for a collective to do, though I would imagine (thinking of Victory Gardens, here) propaganda was switched to that theme, it would get results.

      1. Ignacio

        Yep, it is all about good propaganda techniques. We need a “pivotal change” from technology-driven to socially-driven change. I think this is increasingly being recognised by people actively working on it.

        I found an interesting paywalled article that underscored this. The paper talked about misaligment of employees’ and company interests in energy saving and found that awareness by itself did nothing to reduce energy usage in companies. Interestingly, only when social comparison (sharing of energy saving results) was forced, energy saving practices were generally adopted by employees.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Back in the 1990’s, when I was much more involved in this world, energy saving was pretty much 100% of what campaigning was about. This was obviously driven by the reality that with the renewable and nuclear technology at the time, there was no real alternative other than ‘negawatts’. Unfortunately the interest coincided with consistently low fuel prices which killed energy conservation stone dead. I think a major transformation occurred when the price of renewables started to collapse from the mid-00’s onwards, and so the narrative changed from conservation to green energy. In terms of narrative, ‘Green Energy’ just seems more positive and is something that attracts business, so its just an easier line to push.

      Of course, both issues overlap. EV’s are ‘greener’ to one degree, but they also use significantly less energy than ICE cars. But all that becomes irrelevant if everyone buys two of them. I think one element of good news about EV’s is that the spin offs genuinely reduce energy use and car use – electric bikes and scooters as an example. Which of course may well be one reason why the car industry has never been too keen on them – they have seen they have the potential to reduce overall demand.

      In some cities, I believe scooters and mini-electric bikes can become significant game-changers, because of the potential symbiotic benefits with public transport (within 12 months, I’ve been amazed at the number of scooters I see being used by people exiting my nearest railway station). Of course, they still need lithium and cobalt, but vastly less than a car.

      1. Ignacio

        Yes, and electric bikes migth do a lot of that trick. In Madrid it was a conservative People’s Party Major who installed a public electric bike service. Thereafter, they migth have realised that this is a threat to other business and it was left without further investments to scale it up or just even maintain it. Scaling it up and adding a campaign to favour electric bike usage, making it fashionable, would do a lot to reduce energy usage, reduce air contamination and improve our sedentary life style, but yet some powerful vested interests may not like it at all.

      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        > electric bikes and scooters

        Using them to feed public transportation hubs and for going to the store would be a lot better than running them along busy city sidewalks.

        It does occur to me that unbundling the functions of the car is one way to think about it. After all, if you think about it, using the same vehicle to run errands that you use to commute and also to travel across the continent is a little daffy.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Urban planners usually call it ‘the last mile problem’. Public transport is great for connecting nodes, but people rarely live in nodes. The distance between railway stations and home/work is often the deal loser for people making their transport choices. This is especially so in cities with poor city centre links or loose transport networks (i.e. most of them). The good thing about scooters is that they significantly open up the catchment area for existing railway and bus nodes. Bikes do the same of course, but trains can’t carry many of them, and there is usually a lack of parking space.

          And yes, I know hating on scooters is popular now, but this is a consequence of technology overtaking infrastructure provision and regulation. Once that issue is sorted out, they have enormous potential, especially for those who for one reason or another won’t cycle. A friend of mine recently broke her leg and could not drive or cycle, but was able, cast and all, to take her small daughter to school every day after borrowing a friends electric scooter.

  14. Jessica

    This question of mineral supply – and I am encouraged that we plebs are discussing this among ourselves before the problem even arises – is an example of the difference between mature technology and immature technology.
    Mature technology can be shared with the entire human race. Immature technology* depends on keeping some (often a majority) of the human race too poor to purchase the products.
    Right now, almost all even mildly advanced technology is immature.
    Currently existing capitalism has no mechanism for moving past immature technology to mature technology.
    BTW, my guess is that in the case of electric cars, the solution will be a combination on the one hand of reducing the need for on-board energy storage, for example by some means of feeding energy into vehicles on main roads and rural interstates and US highways (far more roads than a train system), on the one hand and on-board storage that is not batteries. Perhaps super capacitors or small fuel cells that are used as steady-state battery chargers and that are recharged with hydrogen by electrolysing water overnight.
    Obviously, anything like this will require huge investments in research and development and equally obviously, our current system of corporate organization is incapable of the necessary investment.
    *All current solutions to global warming that do not also involve radical change in the structure of power are immature technologies in a broader sense. As long as the world population is anything like our current 7 billion, these solutions require that large portions of the population be kept in abject misery. For an even larger population, this is even more true.

  15. Ian Perkins

    No mention of magnesium-sulphur batteries. Both these elements are plentiful, and the batteries wouldn’t require cobalt.
    I heard that one reason for the lack of research in this direction is the amounts of money already invested in lithium battery production. Why would they now invest in a cheaper type of battery?

  16. William Hunter Duncan

    In Minnesota the adults in the room are about to allow Swiss Glencore and Chilean Antigofasta to mine nickel/copper in sulfides in the Boundary Waters region.

    Most of the waters of Minnesota are now polluted more than ever, by industrial agriculture and urban turf grass, such that you can’t swim in half the lakes half the season, but we are constantly told Minnesota has some of the toughest environmental rules in the world.

    20 years of mining roughly, for ten+ generations of cleanup. The result is predictable as the rising and setting of the sun. Plunder, pollute and run in the style of central and South America, I keep calling it; MAGA nationalists working hand in hand with neoliberal globalists to make an epic mess of these 10,000+ lakes.

  17. Jack Lifton

    The conclusion of this article is correct; there are not enough accessible critical raw materials for the conversion of either the global transportation fleet or global energy production to the use of batteries for traction support or storage/frequency control. The human race simply does not have the engineering ability to produce materials such as lithium, cobalt, or the rare earths in sufficient quantity.
    What amazes me is the comprehensive ignorance of this article’s writer with regard to geology, chemistry, engineering and finance as it is involved in each of these scientific categories.
    The “facts” here are almost entirely without scientific or technical support by the author yet the conclusion is undeniably correct.
    Learned twits in the sciences and engineering will pick upon the incorrect facts and statements here, but to no avail. There will not be global revolutions in the powertrains for transportation or the production of baseload energy.

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      Hi Jack, glad to see you still commenting on here. Lambert should indeed ask you to do a more comprehensive piece on this topic, or repost some of your excellent SA posts, but you probably won’t get very far calling him ignorant.

  18. RaubCee

    Let’s get radical, it’s a logistical problem, the only sure solution is eliminate cars altogether. Live where we work, work where we live, have all that we need a stones throw from where we are. Stop concentrating populations around cities and offices, stop building suburbs in ways that need cars. Also the solution to traffic congestion, btw.

    Many of the pieces are already in place, at least in Europe, UK, North America. We have the technology. We’d still need trucks and rail to transport goods and material, shift limited battery resources and tech to those. Overseas transport can be done by sail if we invest in that direction, slower but just as good, but cargo ships can also do solar.

  19. John k

    Great discussion, learned things.
    I agree with another poster, worries were running out of something have all turned out not to be a problem… investments happen plenty fast with good returns, or just the story prices are rising so returns will be good, consider fracking.
    Bigger issue is what’s causing all the co2 and other pollution like plastic, excessive farming, destroying forests turning amazon into marginal cattle grazing, hunting elephants and whales…
    The timeline issue means the sustainable number will likely decline if we don’t cut co2 output soon. But aren’t we already far past it? Forgetting warming, isn’t everything in decline?
    Humans are not smarter than yeast. But both will survive.

  20. Adrienne

    Private electric cars are a dead end, a stopgap, “extend and pretend” for the suburban lifestyle of the most wasteful people on earth, Americans. They are a valuable marketing tool to help people maintain the illusion that “green energy” will negate the need for drastic lifestyle changes.

    I hope to never have to buy another car of any kind–we have three early 2000’s vehicles, paid for and in good repair, and my hubby and I don’t drive much. There’s a good chance we can keep them running as long as we need to drive (we’re both in our early 60s).

    This year I purchased an electric-assist bicycle. So far I am using it for my daily 8-mile round-trip commute, plus recreational riding. Five years ago I sustained a knee injury that I feared would end my cycling days forever, but the e-bike has made it possible for me to ride long distances with ease. It’s truly a game-changer; as opposed to a scooter, it’s a real transportation device: I can carry two bags of groceries with ease. If I had the care of a small child I could run errands with her on the back.

    The bike I chose is a city commuter model with integrated lights, sturdy fenders, puncture-resistant 2.3″ tires, a front suspension fork, a built-in bomber rack that can accommodate large panniers or a bolt-on child seat, lugs for a front cargo rack, a 7-speed rear derailleur, 5-level pedal assist (max 750 watt output), and throttle for pedal-free motoring. List price for this amazing machine is $1500 sans tax: cheaper than a oil-burning beater car with bald tires and bad brakes.

    The battery is 48V 14Ah (672Wh) Li-ion, weighing 3.49 kg (7.7 lb), rated for 600 charge cycles, range 20-40 miles. Compare with a Tesla Model S75:

    Tesla battery: 530kg (1168 lb)
    75,000 Wh
    Energy density: 75,000 Wh/530 kg = 141.5 Wh/kg

    E-bike battery: 3.49 kg (7.7 lb)
    672 Wh
    Energy density: 672 Wh/3.49 kg = 192.5 Wh/kg

    So my e-bike has greater energy density than a Tesla; the Tesla’s battery is nearly 200x heavier than the bike’s, which roughly translates to 200x the amount of raw materials.

    200 e-bikes vs. one electric car.

    P.S. I live in a fairly remote rural area, so we’re never going to have any kind of public transportation. Bikes are a viable alternative mode here, and e-bikes simply extend the range, power, and accessibility of regular bikes.

    1. Ignacio

      Thank you Adrienne. This is the kind of analyses that must be done when raw materials will presumably be limiting. I dream of mobile batteries that can be connected either to your car/scooter/bike or your house according to usage needs and charged through solar PV, eolic or grid connected charger according to source availability. Smart batteries I call them.

    2. Math is Your Friend

      “The battery is 48V 14Ah (672Wh) Li-ion, weighing 3.49 kg (7.7 lb), rated for 600 charge cycles, range 20-40 miles.


      Tesla battery: ******* 141.5 Wh/kg

      E-bike battery: ******* 192.5 Wh/kg”

      All technology is compromises, balanced to fit use cases.

      Let’s run through the numbers.

      192.5 / 141.5 = 1.36

      So, your e-bike battery has 36% more energy by weight.

      Why? Are the engineers at Tesla incompetent? Too soon to assume that.

      Hmmm… the Tesla battery is much larger and heavier. Perhaps it needs a more robust physical structure, to preserve integrity and resist damage by larger physical stresses and to distribute those stresses over longer distances?

      The square/cube law (structural strength increases by the square of the linear dimension, mass increases by the cube of the linear dimension) – well known to biologists as the explanation of the differences in the skeletons of mice and elephants, for example – also applies to structures.

      That’s probably part of it.

      But there is another subtle difference.

      “rated for 600 charge cycles, range 20-40 miles. ”

      So, if you ran full distance for 600 charge cycles you would go about 18,000 miles ( I assumed the variance in range is due to things like wind, gradients, speed, vehicle load, tire pressure, and temperature and arbitrarily picked the half way point).

      Average driving distance per year varies with country, location within country, age, sex, and likely profession, wealth, fuel price, and other variables.

      The average in the United States seems to be around 15,000 miles per year. Do Tesla drivers drive more? I suspect so, but don’t know. Let’s stick with 15K.

      18000 / 15000 = 1.2

      What is the life of an EV battery? I’ve seen numbers mentioned between 5 and 10 years… the former from people who think EVs are a bad idea.

      Regardless, reports are that replacing an EV battery costs thousands of dollars.

      An EV battery with the charge cycle/capacity characteristics of your e-bike batter would last a bit less than 15 months before dying, assuming failure is uniform. If some number of cells start failing first they would accelerate the strain on the remaining cells, and with a large battery there are a lot of cells that could fail ‘early’ given some kind of lifetime probability curve… so you might well only get a year out of a battery.

      I don’t think you could sell a lot of EVs if the battery had to be replaced every year.

      And you’d have a big pile of hard to recycle old cells.

      While I haven’t gone deeply into lithium chemistry, most rechargeable battery chemistries trade off charge cycles vs more weight/size for a given amount of power.

      More than anything else that probably explains the power density difference… a difference in the use case and the expected miles/year.

      The issue of use cases applies to more than choice of battery.

      Clearly the e-bike works for you, where it could not work for me. An 8 mile round trip in a rural area in good weather is one thing – a 60 mile commute on expressways with as many as 8 lanes in each direction, with a third of the year vulnerable to ice and snow requires a vehicle with more speed, range, and at least 4 wheels to do it safely.

      While public transportation exists the choice is between 1 hour in a car or 4 hours on public transit, while dealing with ice, snow, visibility issues, distracted drivers, and other hazards to pedestrians.

      As they say, YMMV. There are no universal good solutions.

      1. Adrienne


        The subject of Lambert’s article is the finite availability of metals essential to current electric vehicle technology. My point was that approximately 200 electric-assist bikes use (very roughly) the same amount of battery materials as a single electric car. Comparing the overall utility of an e-bike to an electric car is strawmanning–of course a car is more useful in certain circumstances than a bicycle is.

        My e-bicycle allows me to replace a certain number of trips that I would otherwise do by car. The days I ride the bike, I don’t burn any gasoline, don’t put wear on the tires or brakes, don’t add miles to the odometer. I ride in my street clothes and arrive un-sweaty, energized, and ready to work. I get 15-20 minutes of fresh air at the beginning and end of my day, plus a bit of exercise. If it’s raining hard I can drive, and when winter comes and the days get short I’ll drive again.

        There are many circumstances where bikes are a perfectly good alternative to automobile travel: dense urban areas with surface streets under 40mph and rural towns are ideal for bicycle transport. The vast swathes of America only accessible via 8-lane, 70 mph expressways are clearly not. Fortunately, I escaped that nightmare 40 years ago and have not regretted it for one minute. You couldn’t pay me enough to spend 2 hours a day on the freeway ;-)

        In a world facing inevitable shortages of affordable sources rare earths and other minerals, personal electric cars should be last on the list of our priorities. Truck, rail, and container ship transport, industrial processing, urban mass transit, and yes all those giant road-building & construction heavy equipment should come first for electrification. Large numbers of batteries will be needed for grid stabilization as intermittent renewables become dominant in energy generation.

        Personal cars, regardless of the fuel source, are a luxury that a decarbonizing planet cannot afford.

    3. MichaelSF

      Some of that higher power density on the e-bike may come at the expense of lower stability/safety in the cells. People who do battery-powered vehicle projects (ranging from drones/RC aircraft on up) learned that some of those cells with a lot of power in light weight can be a bit flammable. Unfortunately, the cells with a safer chemistry may have lower discharge rates/higher weights.

  21. Adrienne

    For readers interested in e-bikes, I highly recommend the Electric Bike Review site. The young man who runs the site does in-depth video reviews and I learned a lot about the tech from watching them.

    1. Ignacio

      Just to weeks after the “overhyped” phrase regarding EVs. Yes things are moving fast! Too fast in some instances.

      I wonder whether the speed is genuine however. This is for instance the case of utilities in Spain planning solar farms these days like crazy. My guess is that once the market was freed from restrictions they want to scale up PV as fast as they can to the point where, as in California, there are no extra energy needs at top PV production hours. In this way they crowd out roof top self-consumption, which is far more sensible from the environmental point of view. Anything, whatever, to keep business as usual.

      In the case of Li-ion batteries, given those can have different uses, and ruling out a revolutionary change in the short term, raw materials migth become limiting sooner rather than later and a brainless rush for all electric may result in shortages precisely where batteries should play an essential role. We may end wishing stricter public oversigth was applied on this issue.

    2. John k

      I keep hearing about all the companies that will eat Tesla’s lunch any day now because we will see how real car companies do it better and at lower cost. They’re finding it’s not so easy.
      Plus Tesla is I think the only one using very little cobalt, probably the most problematic of the various critical elements. Tesla has huge problems, not least it’s debt, but it makes cars the owners of which like. A lot.

  22. Phacops

    Of course there is no thought to the need for reducing the population thereby reducing the need to destroy the environment for an electric economy. Do we want an unsustainable expansion of national sacrifice areas of ruined ecologies? The loss of environmental services from nature will likely diminish the world’s carrying capacity.

    By not having children my spouse and I have already saved the world at least 3,440 metric tons of carbon and the accompanying destruction of associated resources. So, I for one have no incentive to limit my resource and carbon use to “save” the world for those who continue to spew out babies.

    1. Felix_47

      Good point Phacops. We don’t have the technology to support 9 billion humans in some sort of relative equality and the growth rate of humans exceeds our technical ability to develop energy without ruining the environment. And with the proliferation of smart phones, for example, people in the underdeveloped parts of the world are not willing to sit back and wait for their time to come or development to happen. They want a better life now meaning they must move to the first world. When the environment become uninhabitable a die off may occur and the cycle can begin all over again just like bacteria on a Petri dish.

      1. lordkoos

        This time the die-off could likely be the end… I don’t think things will ever come back on any kind of human time scale. Even if some of us can survive the climate change, there will not be enough resources left to sustain future civilizations… we’ll have mined the planet, killed most of the animals and sea life, etc. There isn’t going to be much left to work with for a few hundred million years until the minerals, fossil fuels and life forms are replenished, maybe.

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