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Norwegian Researchers Show Us How To Avoid A Battery Crisis

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In another recent article, I explored how Ford is taking the Tesla approach to EVs, not only with its recently announced adoption of Tesla’s NACS plug, but also in a previously-discussed approach to vehicle efficiency. Ford isn’t going to waste time and money trying to offer 600-mile EVs, but it is going to focus on getting enough range through a mix of efficient vehicles and good charging infrastructure.

But, a group of researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology think even this might not be enough to keep the industry out of trouble. In the majority of global scenarios and government goals for reducing carbon emissions in the transportation sector, battery-powered electric vehicles are viewed as a significant component of the solution. To produce sufficient batteries for this transition to low-emission vehicles, vast quantities of raw materials are required.

Lithium, an essential element in all EV batteries, plays a crucial role in ensuring access to these resources, because all major battery chemistries rely on it.

“It seems very likely we’ll have a shortage. The key lies in the demand. The demand needs to decrease to avoid long-term supply problems,” says Fernando Aguilar Lopez, a PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Energy and Process Engineering.

While there’s a lot of lithium around the world, the researchers have figured out that there just won’t be enough to go around, even if we all chose LEAFs instead of Cybertrucks.

Fernando Aguilar Lopez specializes in analyzing global material flows, examining raw materials cycles from extraction to production, usage, and disposal. Along with postdoc Romain Billy and Professor Daniel B. Müller, he has developed a material flow analysis model called MATILDA (MATerIaL Demand and Availability). This model was recently introduced in the journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling.

The study explores strategies for managing resource utilization in EV batteries. MATILDA aids in understanding the critical factors influencing resource supply and calculates how different interventions could help mitigate future demand. MATILDA stands as the most comprehensive model to date for battery raw materials in the global vehicle fleet. According to Müller, tools like this can play a vital role in helping industry and policymakers develop strategies to ensure secure and resilient critical raw materials supply chains.

If you love big battery EVs, and you’re looking to find the study to nit-pick its scenarios, I have even more bad news: the team used over 8,000 different scenarios to test this, and it all points the same way. The researchers suggest that in order to prevent excessive demand for individual metals, investments should be made in a broader range of new battery technologies. Furthermore, the focus shouldn’t be on producing more, larger, and heavier electric cars. Instead, it would be beneficial for more people to share smaller cars with lower-capacity battery packs.

“Extending the lifespan of vehicles and batteries by facilitating reuse and replacement will also be crucial in reducing the demand for raw materials,” says Aguilar Lopez.

No Silver Bullets Are Available To Save The Day

Sadly, LiFePO (aka LFP) batteries aren’t a magic bullet, either. They’re great, not because they avoid lithium use (they don’t), but because they help evade bottlenecks of other materials. But, they replace things like nickel and cobalt with phosphorous, and we need phosphorous to grow food! Using too much of that could really hurt farmers economically and drive up food prices globally.

The NTNU study reveals that despite its importance, recycling will not substantially alleviate the pressure on raw materials in the next decade. This is because our current EVs are relatively new, and a significant number of them won’t be available for recycling until 10 to 15 years from now.

Nevertheless, MATILDA demonstrates that primary demand can be reduced by enhancing the efficiency of recycling lithium, aluminum, manganese, and phosphorus. These materials are presently uneconomical to recycle and are not encompassed in the latest EU battery regulations.

Solid-state batteries are unlikely to be on the market in time, and even they have problems if we were to shove them into service by some miracle. “Actually, solid-state batteries can worsen the situation, requiring more lithium per kilowatt hour — almost twice as much in some cases,” Aguilar Lopez said.

What Can We Do?

The study offers a lot of alternatives, and I’m going to mix them with some of my own here.

The obvious thing is that when you find the floor flooding in your bathroom, you’ve got to turn the water off before you reach for the mop. That means that anything we can do to reduce battery sizes in EVs, or even keep them from becoming even bigger, is key to getting through the next decade or two. That’s not enough, but it’s better than making the problem worse.

We’ve also got to look for ways to focus on smaller batteries more.

For EVs, this means trying to promote a “less is more” approach. This will require increased efficiency, a TON more charging stations, and vehicles that are more efficient on the highway (probably via multi-speed drive units). There’s also a cultural element — our addiction to larger SUVs is just not great here.

It’s also important to look beyond cars, but that doesn’t necessarily mean forcing people to ride the bus or the train. Micromobility, especially e-bikes, is a big part of getting people from A to B without giant batteries that the world just can’t afford too many of right now. Also, things like ride-share services, where people are sharing those batteries, is a good thing to encourage. In-between solutions, like mini-EVs, are also worth looking more into.

But, doing any of this requires infrastructure, and that requires spending money. Charging stations aren’t cheap, and we’ll likely need to go a ways beyond what the NEVI (Infrastructure Bill) funds will pay for. Bike infrastructure, at least GOOD bike infrastructure, also isn’t as cheap as painting a line or stamping on “sharrows.”

But, all of this is a lot cheaper than doing nothing. If the battery supply all goes to give wealthy people 200+ kWh batteries, everybody else will keep burning gasoline. Given where I’m writing this, I don’t think I need to go into great detail on all of the bad things that come from that outcome!

Featured image by Aptera.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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