A pinkish-red mineral on a black background.

An erythrite specimen in the Museum's collection. Erithrite comprises of hydrated cobalt arsenate, and is sometimes called red cobalt.

We need more scarce metals and elements to reach the UK's greenhouse gas goals

To meet UK electric car targets for 2050, we would need just under twice the current annual world cobalt production. 

The Committee on Climate Change, an independent body that advises the government, has recommended a new emissions target for the UK - reaching net-zero greenhouse gases by 2050.

To achieve this, it is likely that all cars and vans on the roads in the UK will need to be electric by 2050.

However, achieving this revolution in the way we travel will require a huge amount of resources, including metals. Supplies of some of these metals will need to increase dramatically.

A letter co-authored by the Museum's Head of Earth Sciences, Prof Richard Herrington, has been delivered to the Committee and details some of these challenges.

Prof Herrington says, 'The urgent need to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to secure the future of our planet is clear, but there are huge implications for our natural resources not only to produce green technologies like electric cars but to keep them charged.

'Over the next few decades, global supply of raw materials must drastically change to accommodate not just the UK's transformation to a low carbon economy, but the whole world's.'

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Specimen of the mineral cobaltite, a cobalt iron arsenic sulphide, in the Museum collection.

 

What do we mean by net zero?

Carbon dioxide emissions are a key component of what are called greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change.

Carbon dioxide is one of the most prolific greenhouse gases because it is produced in excess by humans, farmed animals and our modern infrastructure.

To achieve net zero carbon emissions, a country (or building, person, or business) must either create no carbon dioxide at all, or figure out how much carbon dioxide it releases and remove the equivalent amount from the atmosphere.

Many countries are investigating the best way to achieve the second option. In order to succeed, it is necessary to either stimulate nature to absorb more CO2, or to create technology that does the same thing.

Going further, a country will become carbon negative when it regularly absorbs even more CO2 than it gives out. Currently, the only country that can claim to be carbon negative is the Kingdom of Bhutan in southeast Asia.

Electric cars and the numbers

In the UK, petrol and diesel cars make up the biggest share of the UK's climate pollution.

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.

The letter to the Committee on Climate Change states, 'In 2017 electric and hybrid cars accounted for about 0.2% of the UK fleet, so that clearly needs to change rapidly for this to reach 100% by 2050. 

'The stated challenge for all sales to be pure battery by 2035 is also a steep ask, given projections for vehicle sales, set to be around 2.5 million new vehicles per year.'

An electric car at a charging point. Image: Albert Lugosi via Wikimedia Commons.

 

What about the rest of the world?

Now let's think beyond the UK. At the moment, there are about a billion cars in the world. By 2050, there will be two billion.

Based on 2018 figures, experts have worked out that for those two billion cars to be electric, annual production of neodymium and dysprosium would have to increase by 70%, copper output would need to more than double and cobalt output would need to increase at least three and a half times for the entire period from now until 2050 to satisfy the demand.

The other energy costs of electric cars

Electric vehicles come with an energy cost too. Energy costs for cobalt production are estimated at 7,000-8,000 kilowatt hours for every tonne of metal produced and for copper 9,000 kilowatt hours per tonne. 

The rare-earth energy costs are at least 3,350 kilowatt hours per tonne, so for the target of all 31.5 million cars that requires 22.5 terawatt hours of power to produce the new metals for the UK fleet, amounting to 6% of the UK's current annual electrical usage. 

Extrapolated to two billion cars worldwide, the energy demand for extracting and processing the metals is almost four times the total annual UK electrical output. 

How will we power electric cars?

There are serious implications for the electrical power generation in the UK needed to recharge all these electric vehicles.

Using figures published for current electric vehicles (Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe), driving 252.5 billion miles uses at least 63 terawatt hours of power. This will demand a 20% increase in UK generated electricity. 

Of course, ideally we'd like that energy to come from sustainable sources. But if wind farms are chosen to generate the power for the projected two billion cars in the world, this requires the equivalent of a further years' worth of total global copper supply and 10 years' worth of global neodymium and dysprosium production to build the windfarms.  

Solar power is also problematic because it is also resource hungry. All the photovoltaic systems currently on the market are reliant on one or more raw materials classed as critical or near critical by the EU or the US Department of Energy (high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium) because of their natural scarcity or their recovery as minor-by-products of other commodities.

Both these wind turbine and solar generation options for the added electrical power generation capacity have substantial demands for steel, aluminium, cement and glass.

Today's letter states, 'This research represents the tip of the iceberg. Over the next few decades, global supply of raw materials must drastically change to accommodate not just the UK’s transformation to a low carbon economy, but the whole world's.

'It is essential to have timely and sustainable supplies of raw materials in quantities greatly exceeding current global mining and processing capacity.'

What the Museum is doing

Using its scientific expertise and collection of geological specimens, the Museum is collaborating with leading researchers to identify resource and environmental implications of the transition to green energy technologies, including electric cars.

Prof Herrington says, 'Our role as scientists is to provide the evidence for how best to move towards a zero-carbon economy.

'Society needs to understand that there is a raw material cost of going green and that both new research and investment is urgently needed for us to evaluate new ways to source these. This may include potentially considering sources much closer to where the metals are to be used.'

The co-signatories of today's letter are part of SoS MinErals, an interdisciplinary programme of NERC-EPSRC-Newton-FAPESP funded research.

It focuses on the science needed to sustain the security of supply of strategic minerals in a changing environment. This programme falls under NERC's sustainable use of natural resources (SUNR) strategic theme.

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