How the SUV trend is exacerbating rare earth shortages

Berlin. The car, which is wowing audiences in China, looks stocky, almost like a small box on wheels. Its name: Wuling Hongguang Mini EV. The small e-racer is a co-production of SAIC and General Motors, and it weighs less than 700 kilograms.

Despite its success, hardly anyone in Germany is likely to know the city runabout. Small cars of this type are becoming increasingly rare in this country. Manufacturers don’t build them because customers aren’t interested – or vice versa. And so the vehicles are not getting smaller on average, but bigger. The problem: With their size, the demand for cobalt, nickel and rare earths also increases. They are expensive and their extraction pollutes the environment. And again and again it is children’s hands that dig for them.

Demand for critical raw materials is increasing

Substances such as cobalt, nickel and rare earths form the bottleneck in a number of industries. They are in wind turbines and hard drives, in energy-saving lamps and tanks. And they are in the batteries of electric cars. The project to convert car traffic from combustion engines to electric drives stands and falls with them. The problem is that the industry continues to fuel the shortage of rare earths – with the trend towards ever larger cars.

“With the trend towards SUVs, we are going in the completely wrong direction to achieve our global climate goals,” says Marcel Weil from the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis. The production of e-cars is energy-intensive anyway, which is all the more true for e-SUVs. And as of today, only part of the electricity they consume comes from renewable energies, as Weil says.

He expects the demand for critical raw materials for electric vehicles to increase immensely by 2050. “I don’t see what’s supposed to stop the global trend towards e-mobility, especially in China.”

Problematic supply chain

Batteries with a cobalt content are particularly popular because they are powerful. But their supply chain is considered problematic. By far the largest known deposits are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to the aid organization Save the Children, 200,000 people work in Congolese cobalt mines, many of them children. Fatal accidents happen again and again in the mines.

Cobalt also plays an important role in the automotive industry’s most common type of battery, the nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) battery. The industry is trying to reduce the proportion of cobalt and increase that of nickel, says Weil. Roughly, there should be eight grams of nickel for one gram of cobalt and one gram of manganese. “But we haven’t got there yet for industrial production.”

In addition to cobalt, there are dozens of other substances that are important for e-mobility. Most of these come from China, including magnesium. Magnesium is needed for the production of aluminum, which is important for lighter electric cars, says Weil. “It is one of the most critical raw materials of all.” China holds 86 percent of the global production volume here.

Cars keep getting bigger

It is one thing that cars are becoming more and more electric. But the cars built in Europe are also getting bigger: on average 7 centimeters higher, 10 centimeters wider and 20 centimeters longer than in 2000, according to an evaluation by the consulting company Inovev. At around 1.5 tons, the weight is a fifth higher. The main reason is the growing demand for SUVs and electric cars.

See also  Satellite Images: That's why the color of the oceans is changing

In addition, as a study by the Center of Automotive Management in Bergisch Gladbach shows, the trend towards larger and larger cars is even stronger in the electric segment than in the overall market. “The trend towards an increasing “SUVization” of electromobility is critical here,” says director Stefan Bratzel. Because larger cars are inefficient and consume more material. In order to limit the burden on the environment, the proportion of smaller e-cars must be increased.

But that contradicts the interests of car manufacturers, says Weil. “They are driven by profit maximization.” The bigger, the more profitable. “German manufacturers seem to have overslept the idea of ​​getting into battery production at an early stage,” says Weil. If you have to buy the battery cells expensively, you can only produce expensive cars. “The German car manufacturers are therefore currently not in a position to produce a mass-market, affordable small electric car.”

The automotive industry disagrees: “With their range, which ranges from small cars to mid-size cars and SUVs, the manufacturers are serving a demand from consumers,” says a spokesman for the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA). In addition, there are aspects of vehicle safety such as a larger crumple zone. “That’s why cars are generally getting bigger,” says the VDA spokesman.

More recycling of batteries

According to him, 94 percent of a disused vehicle can now be recycled, including rare earths. “Technological innovations will increase these quotas even further in the future and further reduce the primary raw material requirement in the vehicle,” said the spokesman. For the recycling of critical battery raw materials, the EU sets specific requirements in its new battery regulation. From 2026, around 90 percent of the cobalt used should be recycled. The recycling of old batteries is important, says Weil. However, it could only make a small contribution if e-mobility were to grow exponentially by 2050. If today’s batteries were to be recycled in 15 years’ time, that would only cover a small, albeit important, part of the demand by then.

See also  Drought, flooding, pollution: every tenth person at risk of water crisis

In addition, work is being done to produce batteries from more readily available materials – such as those based on sodium. Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) cell technology, which powers an electric truck from Daimler Trucks, is also very popular. “The innovation cycles are extremely short,” says Weil. It is therefore possible that in 15 years recycled cobalt and nickel will no longer be used on a large scale for batteries.

Company cars create the wrong incentives

The Federal Environment Agency (UBA) also explains the SUV trend with false incentives. In Germany, many vehicles are registered as company cars for the first time, as a spokesman says. Additional costs for the purchase were not that important. “But this also means there is no incentive to choose a smaller vehicle,” said the spokesman.

And rational thoughts about the environment? They played a subordinate role in the purchase decision, says consultant and climate psychologist Janna Hoppmann. Needs and feelings are more important. “When driving SUVs, the psychological need for privacy is crucial,” says Hoppmann. A turnaround in traffic should take these needs into account, as Hoppmann demands, for example with a view to the seats on buses and trains.

Until then, however, a few SUVs are likely to roll off the assembly line – for example the new Mercedes EQC SUV. 408 hp, 2.5 tons, as the ADAC reports. A true e-colossus. The battery alone weighs 650 kilograms – about as much as the entire Wuling Hongguang Mini EV.

See more here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *