THE PROBLEM WITH HYBRID CARS

This April, Lithium Energy Japan announced a huge new plant to produce 4.4 million lithium battery cells each year. Lithium-ion batteries hold a greater charge than nickel batteries, and so lithium is in high demand. But as demand increases, the years of production that can be expected to be obtained from ‘known reserves’ drops.

Japan is planning on offering economic aid worth hundreds of millions of dollar in the form of loans to build a geothermal power plant in Bolivia, according to reports in early April.  South Korea is also keenly eyeing reserves in the South American country.

The reason? Around half of the world’s lithium is thought to be in the Uyuni Great Lake of Bolivia, and the Japanese government believes that to win contracts with Bolivia, in the face of competition from other countries, an edge is needed. Similar moves have been carried out by Toshiba in Kazakhstan.

A Toyota supplier has even formed a partnership to mine lithium in Argentina: a ‘green’ car industry appears to be no magic pill for the car industry’s problems.

 

But a potentially more troubling issue is the use of rare earth metals, with up to 1kg used in each motor, and up to 15kg used in the batteries of hybrid cars.

There are, however, plenty of metals which are perhaps even ‘rarer’ than those called rare earth metals.

Consumer-tech ‘rare metals’

Tellurium, meanwhile, was extremely rare before its use within solar cells for solar panels was discovered, and prices have risen years as supplies of the metal – mostly sold as a by-product of copper mining for use as an alloy – are bought up. As with many rare metals, there’s no agreed timeframe on when we may run out.

The big growth in the LCD business has also seen a sky-rocketing of indium prices. Mined as a by-product of zinc, some estimates even suggest we may run out of indium in the next ten years, although indium miners might have other ideas. According to Thomas Graedel at Yale University, indium prices rose from around US$200-300 per kilogram in the late 90s to around US$800 in 2006.

Tantalum, says Graedel, has faced similar constraints to demand. It’s essential for many mobile phone base stations (the towers dotted around the country). Substitutes exist, but they come with major downsides. The battery life isn’t good enough, and they drop too many calls.

Zirconium and its byproduct hafnium also present major problems. Zirconium, mined in Australia amongst other places, is important for nuclear reactors, but we’re not sure how much is left. Hafnium, meanwhile, been used in nuclear control rods, but is being touted as the metal that will be the core of the CPUs of the future. Some estimates put hafnium ‘reserves’ at as little as ten years, but as usual, there are no universally accepted numbers.

Using the US’s National Research Council’s figures, Graedel also found a number of others to ‘fall into the region of danger’ on his ‘criticality matrix’, which also takes into account how vital a metal is in its uses.

Rhodium, essential in catalytic converters, was found to be at high risk of impact disruption, and high risk of supply constraint.

Platinum
, used in electrical circuits, catalytic converters, thermometers, dentistry equipment, currently popular in jewellery and, of course, platinum recording disks, was also found to be at high risk of supply.

Manganese, used in disposable batteries and as a rust treatment, was found to be in danger, as was niobium, an important additive to steel alloys, often used to strengthen pipes such as gas pipelines.

John Tilton at the Colorado School of Mines, working with Brian Skinner at Yale University, also found that supplies were ‘restricted’ to less than twenty five years for silver, gold, mercury, lead and thorium, often used in nuclear reactors.

While their research was based on figures from 1994 – leaving them open to claims that estimations may change over time – their findings illustrate the fact that supply constraints must be considered.

What’s clear is that we’re building and consuming products with, currently, little concern as to where the metals come from. And while the market’s price fluctuations could ensure that the right metal find themselves in the right place, for the right price, if attitudes and approaches do not change by choice, they may be changed by force.

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