Ease up: are we about to hit a bottleneck for EV resources?

A modelling study looking at electric vehicles has found that the resources to produce them will be significantly strained in the next few years. The researchers suggest that to stop the worst of the bottleneck will take an overhaul – we need to change the way we think about our cars and cities.

“It seems very likely we’ll have a shortage,’ says Fernando Aguilar Lopez, a renewable energy researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

“The key lies in the demand. The demand needs to decrease to avoid long-term supply problems.”

The researchers used a model called MATerIaL Demand and Availability (MATILDA) to analyse at how lithium and other elements will be available from the extraction phase, all the way through to production, use, and scrapping. They looked at more than 8,000 scenarios in the paper has just been published in Resources, Conservation and Recycling.

Although there’s plenty of lithium, cobalt, nickel and phosphorus in the ground, the problem lies in mining.  An older paper from 2022 suggested it can take up to 30 years from the initial exploration to be able to use the elements in electric cars.

“The ‘technology metals’, such as cobalt, lithium, rare earths and platinum group metals, are generally produced in much smaller amounts (hundreds to thousands of tonnes) from a small number of mines worldwide,” reported the older paper.

“We will require a massive and rapid increase in the production of technology metals, essential to the function and performance of electric vehicles (EVs), if we are to meet the targets of governments and the car industry.”

Worse, the researchers for this new paper have suggested that recycling won’t be solution in the near term as there are not enough electric vehicles being scrapped to reuse as a replacement for the bulk of new materials.

The way we’re using electric cars is also changing. Instead of being able to travel short distances with a smaller battery, more and more electric cars have large batteries for travelling longer distances.

“We’re driving ever larger, heavier cars with massive battery packs. At the same time, we only use these vehicles actively about five per cent of the time. The rest of the time, it’s parked. Only a few of us drive further than 45 kilometres daily,” Aguilar Lopez said.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic solution for this bottleneck we’re coming up against.  The easiest solution technologically is probably the hardest societally – change the way we think about our cars.

The researchers have suggested that while technology catches up with sodium-ion batteries or other solutions, we should instead attempt to share more smaller EV cars, and update cities to be designed for people rather than cars.

“Look at Zürich, Vienna, Paris, and Oslo,” Aguilar Lopez said.

“Major moves are being made in many places to create more pleasant urban areas and entice more people to leave their cars. And quite a lot are doing just that. We need regulations– and of course people must accept them.”

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