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Week 51: Merry Electric Christmas ⚡️🎄
In this issue: ▸ Visiting an EV showroom ▸ ‘Electricgate’ – the real story of our batteries ▸ The worst place on earth ▸ Other ways to recover rare earth metals ▸ The hidden home of Christmas 🎄
“Whatever you say, this is better than a fossil driven car.”
A man I spoke to the other day took some time to explain to me why EVs are such a good solution for the climate, and that people like me, questioning the core concept of EVs, are backwards looking losers who do not understand the greatness of them.
I was visiting a showroom in the outskirts of Stockholm, trying to understand the key arguments used by sales people regarding EVs. It was a cold day, crispy, glittering light reflecting some snow that came the night before.
I walked back to town thinking about what he said, looking at the vehicles passing by, going somewhere, transporting people and goods. The early morning traffic was dense and I could not escape noticing that most of the vehicles were single drives, here and there two people, transporting them to the destination of their choice.
The dialogue between me and me was ongoing (as so many times before). What are we doing? Are these so-called solutions to replace our dependency on fossil fuels real solutions? Are they scalable? Affordable? Are they just new commercial packaging with limited impact on climate or real blockbusters that will reshape our way of living and our impact on this planet?
Walking back I kept saying to myself that status quo is not an option and societies need to evolve – and that EVs and many other renewable solutions are part of that evolution. But, while doing that, I could also feel that unpleasant doubt settling in.
Back in town I decided to have a deeper look at it. What came out of it is what you find in this newsletter.
‘Electricgate’ – the real story of our batteries
Rare earth metals are at the core of every major technology today. Smartphones, laptops, wind turbines, electric cars, and medical devices, you name it.
They’re also widely used in defence technology like jets and guided missile systems. Rare earth metals are essential to modern technology.
It’s important to distinguish between: ‘rare-’, ‘precious-’, and ‘critical-’ earth elements. The terms are not interchangeable, but unfortunately often are in popular media.
It’s also important to distinguish between ‘reserves’ and ‘resources’. Reserves denote the amount that can be technically recovered at a cost that is financially feasible at the present price. Resources include all that can be technically recovered at any price.
Electric vehicles typically use two precious earth metals: gold and silver. These are used in minute quantities in the circuit boards, which also occurs in modern fossil fuelled vehicles. The circuit boards run the electronics. These valuable metals are fully recyclable.
Critical earth elements typically found in EV batteries are: lithium and cobalt, both fully recyclable. Both Lithium and cobalt metals can be reused over and over repeatedly. These two elements are not particularly rare – cobalt can be found in most rocks, and lithium is the first metal in the periodic table and one of only three elements created in the primordial Big Bang. Lithium is the 32nd most common element on our planet.
But both metals are critical because of modern societies’ dependence on lithium-ion battery technology for mobile phones, laptops, and now EVs. And also, in the case of cobalt, because of geopolitics: the bulk of the cobalt supply comes from the politically unstable Democratic Republic of Congo. While there are plenty of lithium and cobalt resources, there are fewer reserves of them. Cobalt is a by-product of nickel and copper mines, and is therefore dependent on the economic viability of those mining operations.
Worldwide sources of lithium are broken down by ore-deposit type as follows: closed-basin brines, 58%; pegmatites and related granites, 26%; lithium-enriched clays, 7%; oilfield brines, 3%; geothermal brines, 3%; and lithium-enriched zeolites, 3% (2013 statistics USGS). Of those, closed basin brines are the most important source of lithium reserves.
Put simplistically, dissolved lithium salts are most commonly mined by drilling down to underground saline deposits and pumping the saline to the surface where it is left to dry in the desert sun, before being processed into lithium metal (and other elements, like potash and magnesium).
China currently holds a near monopoly on supply. China mines 94-97% of the rare earth metals globally and, while efforts have increased in America and Europe to find alternative supplies, there are still no clear avenues to diversifying supply. China has become the world’s largest producer simply because Western nations don’t want to do the dirty work that is required to produce rare earths.
The reason most often cited for this shift to China is cheap labour. However another, which is often tacitly acknowledged, is lack of environmental regulation. This has meant that costs associated with proper environmental protection – required if manufacturing occurred in the west – have not been built in to the price of goods.
Australia has substantial rare element deposits. However, the current major Australia processing operation involves a site in Malaysia. This controversial project by Lynas has sparked a major local environmental protest campaign led by Malay residents concerned about environmental and health impacts.
Rare earth metals are currently extracted through mining, which comes with a number of downsides. First, it’s costly and inefficient because extracting even a very small amount of rare earth metals requires large areas to be mined. Second, the process can have enormous environmental impacts. Mining for rare earth minerals generates large volumes of toxic and radioactive material, due to the co-extraction of thorium and uranium, radioactive metals which cause problems for the environment and human health.
These are the locations where the mining of battery metals is taking place.
I stopped here for a moment. Does the average consumer of our newly forged solutions to tackle climate change know this? Is it important at all? I mean we are replacing fossil fuels….
The worst place on earth
I went on and got stuck in this article about what’s arguably the worst place on earth: Hidden in an unknown corner of Inner Mongolia is a toxic, nightmarish lake created by our thirst for smartphones, consumer gadgets and green tech.
You may not have heard of Baotou, but the mines and factories is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of rare earth minerals. The Bayan Obo mines just north of Baotou contain 70% of the world’s reserves.
But, at what cost? Baotou’s many coal-burning power stations sit unsettlingly close to freshly built apartment towers. Everywhere you look, between the half-completed tower blocks and hastily thrown up multi-storey parking lots, is a forest of flame-tipped refinery towers and endless electricity pylons. The air is filled with a constant, ambient, smell of sulphur.
It’s the kind of industrial landscape that America and Europe has largely forgotten. At one time parts of Detroit or Sheffield must have looked and smelled like this.
Here’s a video from “the worst place on earth”:
There are other ways (to recover rare earth metals)
Instead of mining the materials, there are other paths we need to explore.
Rare earth metals can be recovered from electronic products such as mobile phones, laptops and electric vehicles batteries, once they reach the end of their life.
For example, recovering them from electric vehicle batteries involves traditional hydrometallurgical (corrosive media treatment) and pyrometallurgical (heat treatment) processes. However, these have several drawbacks.
Pyrometallurgy is energy-intensive, involving multiple stages that require high working temperatures, around 1,000℃. It also emits pollutants such as carbon dioxide, dioxins and furans into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, hydrometallurgy generates large volumes of corrosive waste, such as highly alkaline or acidic substances like sodium hydroxide or sulfuric acid.
Similar recovery processes are also applied to other energy storage technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries.
There are other ways to do this, far more sustainable ways, but these are still in the early stages. Like recovering rare-earth metals using electrodeposition.
Electrodeposition is already used to recover other metals. You can read more about it here.
To wrap it up, we talk about “renewables” because they use energy sources – sun, wind and tide – to which we have unlimited access. But these energy sources still rely on us mining resources that are not renewable.
The wealth of minerals in the Earth’s crust is finite and the billions of years needed for their formation is no match for the exponential growth of our needs.
Global sales of new electric cars may tip seven million this year.
The hidden home of Christmas 🎄
But now, let’s enjoy Christmas. And, while doing so, let’s forget about Lapland. Because the real home of Christmas is a strange and unknown Chinese city called Yiwu.
According to Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency, more than 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations are made in Yiwu, a significant proportion of which is sold at this enormous wholesale market.
Yes, that tree lighting up your lounge. Those decorations hanging from the ceiling. That novelty stocking filler you bought for your child.
Sustainable? Well, it is Christmas and according to religious interpretation the message of Christmas is that where there is hope, love, light and life, the plan and purpose of God will reach…
With this, I wish you a happy holiday.
This newsletter will be back on the 9th of January 2022.
P.S.: I went back to the showroom to show the above film from Mongolia to the sales manager. He replied: “Our vehicles are made in Europe”…