Are There Enough Minerals On Earth To Support The Growing Electric Car Demand?

December 5, 2022

The electric car demand is dramatically increasing worldwide, with manufacturers pushing for faster production and more variety in the available models. However, there is a legitimate concern that the production - especially for batteries - places too much strain on the world's current supply of minerals. There is a real danger that crucial resources are not plentiful enough to support expanded electric car production, and other minerals come from unstable conflict zones. In this article, we will discuss these factors and how they will affect the supply chain for electric cars.

The Growing Demand

Electric cars are lauded for their energy efficiency, as they produce less greenhouse gas emissions than vehicles that are powered by gasoline. Though they are still low in sales, Tesla and other auto companies have begun to develop electric cars that are appealing to luxury and mass markets. The purpose is to ensure that these cars become attractive for more than just their efficiency. It is essential for them to make the jump to mainstream acceptance in order to ensure that they can start replacing carbon-based vehicles and reducing emissions. There is a lot of ground to cover if these companies want to displace the internal combustion engine, which is far more popular and widespread.

Advancing Battery Technology

Constructing an electric car is not an easy process; the most complex part is the battery. Battery technology has not advanced much in the past several years, and a power supply large enough to power a car without carbon fuel requires a lot of rare materials. Moreover, because these cars are not yet mainstream, electric car parts do not have the support of massive, highly-efficient factories that make traditional vehicles cheaper to assemble. The industry is moving in that direction with Tesla's Gigafactory for batteries, but it often hits production bottlenecks and is not yet ready for full use. This means that even if there was a higher demand for electric cars, manufacturers cannot make them in large quantities yet.

Ironing Out The Kinks

Eventually, manufacturers will start ramping up production and ironing out the kinks in this process. They will have to if they want to begin serving a significant part of the market, which is the end goal. However, that is precisely when the electric car's reliance on rare minerals will become a significant problem. Not only are many of these commodities hard to find, but some of them could also be so difficult to extract from the earth that it won't be economically feasible to make enough electric cars to support significant numbers on the road.

Sourcing Enough Minerals

To begin, consider sourcing. Many of the locations that are rich in essential minerals have local problems that stand in the way of mass electric car production. Consider cobalt, as an example. Cobalt is a necessary mineral for producing electric cars. However, about half of the known cobalt in the world is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the DRC. The DRC is an African nation that experiences frequent civil conflict and instability. Before electric car production increased the demand for cobalt, this was not a problem. But it has since become increasingly problematic to find safe, reliable sources for the essential mineral.

Roadblocks In Progression

Sourcing cobalt is not the only foreseen roadblock. There are many essential minerals - especially the category known as rare earths - that are almost exclusively available in China. The mining and extraction practices in China tend to produce a significant amount of pollution and carbon emissions. This raises the question of whether electric cars are actually any more environmentally friendly than carbon-based ones. Although they might produce less pollution when in operation, the pollution and emissions that went into creating them must be factored in as well. Some of these minerals are virtually impossible to find anywhere else, and there is little hope of the Chinese mining practices changing in the near future.

Shifts In Demand And Supply

Moving past the issue of the source nation; one of the most important metals for use in car batteries is nickel, but not all nickel is suitable for inclusion in a car battery. In fact, as much as half of all nickel is too low in quality to work in an electric car battery. This has created vast distortions in the market for nickel and the mining industry. Similar to cobalt, nickel is seeing shifts in demand and supply based on the recent push for higher output of electric cars.

Nickel Vs. Nickel Sulfate

Mines that are not as suitable for producing high-quality nickel now run the risk of shutting down or cutting costs to stay competitive, because their nickel doesn't have as high of a demand. Nickel buyers require the metal for car batteries, so anything that doesn't make the grade is not attractive, and is therefore not worth purchasing. Additionally, certain nickel mines have started processing their product into nickel sulfate, a compound that is ideal for battery production. Nickel sulfate often has a higher price than nickel itself. Mines whose nickel is not suitable for this conversion are then forced to accept lower prices for their output.

Dependant On Minerals

Between nickel, cobalt, and rare earths, the production of electric cars depends on several minerals that are scarce, hard to extract cleanly or come from unstable areas. The world's market for vehicles is vast and proliferating as the purchasing power of the middle class in nations like China increases. This means the demand for these minerals is increasing, while supply is flat or decreasing. Barring the discovery of major new reserves, these minerals are much less plentiful than the materials that go into a car that runs on an internal combustion engine.

Doomed To Backfire?

Betting on electric cars to make transportation more environmentally friendly could be doomed to backfire. Without seeing what full-scale mass production looks like, it is hard to precisely estimate how much output the current levels of these minerals can support. But it is a serious concern if no alternatives are available. For electric cars to displace traditional ones, they not only have to expand to allow everyone to buy one, but they also must maintain production of new models each year. This has the potential to place an impossible strain on one or more inputs, especially if they wind up coming from an unclean extraction procedure.

Establishing A Widespread Market

Some of these minerals might have other important uses. Just as electric cars spiked demand for cobalt and rich nickel, another innovation could come along that require the same minerals, which could lead to running up against strict physical limits on what the extractable minerals can support. Ironically, pushing for more sustainability could lead us into inextricable resource bottlenecks. This is a problem for establishing a consistent and widespread market for electric cars and could place a cap on how much carbon emissions they can remove.

The Future Is Still Unknown

It is hard to say how this situation will play out because electric cars are so young in their development process. There are only a handful of models on the roads right now, and they tend to be expensive, so it is going to be a while before they are able to make a dent in the auto market. It is possible that new reserves or new innovations will reduce the need for rare minerals. However, if things continue as they appear, it might be necessary to take a hard look at the viability of electric cars. It is entirely possible that improved batteries or more efficient construction can alleviate this problem, but betting on innovations that do not yet exist isn't a real solution.

Understanding The Current Model For Building

Perhaps it will be necessary to ration these minerals among the most critical needs - such as electric trucks and public transit. Advances in battery technology are certainly welcomed across many different areas of sustainable manufacturing and energy generation. Until then, it will take some foresight to understand that the current model for building and selling electric cars might not pan out when scaled up. The resource demands could be so burdensome that they undercut the technology just as it is reaching its peak in mainstream acceptance.