Possible solution: Electric vehicles (EVs). But there are some serious challenges that must be dealt with first, before EVs can be mass-produced enough to actually make a difference for the planet.
- Only about 1% of vehicles on the road today are electric.
Types of EVs
By type of energy storage:
- Battery electric vehicles (most common EVs today)
- Fuel cell vehicles (very few models on the market today)
By type of vehicle:
- Electric trucks (semi trucks / freight trucks)
The batteries in today's EVs contain large amounts of metals that are too scarce. This makes EVs expensive and unscalable.
- Almost all of today's EVs use lithium-ion batteries that are made of nickel, cobalt, manganese and of course lithium.
- Cobalt is the biggest issue: it's scarce, and its production involves child labor.
With either of these technologies, there simply aren't enough minerals available to be mined from the Earth. If we want to make all cars electric, we need to use some other type of energy storage instead. This involves tradeoffs.
To put it simply:
- People need to be okay with driving cheap short-range EVs.
- The battery industry needs to get its s**t together and start making low-cost sodium-ion batteries (even if they aren't as good as lithium-ion).
Sodium-ion batteries are a good potential solution, because they could be built with abundant materials. But this type of battery isn't even available on the market yet. Some companies are investing millions of dollars into research & development, trying to make sodium-ion batteries as energy-dense as lithium-ion. But despite all the hype in the news, there's no guarantee that this will ever happen - and if it does, there's no guarantee that the batteries will be cheap. Meanwhile, sodium-ion batteries could already be a "good enough" solution today, if we just accept the fact that they naturally hold less of a charge than lithium-ion. If battery manufacturers lowered their expectations a bit, they could be making the first sodium-ion batteries in 6 months from now, instead of in 10 years from now!
Of course there are some types of EVs that have to have a long range - for example freight trucks and intercity buses. But maybe if these are the only EVs that use scarce minerals, then there just might be enough minerals to go around.
For mid-range EVs, LFP batteries might be good enough. They're still lithium-based, but at least they're cobalt-free - and these batteries are already available on the market today.
Generating enough electricity
Whenever the electricity comes from fossil fuels, electric cars are barely any better than gasoline cars (in terms of carbon emissions). This is the case in most parts of the world
Availability of charging
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Efficient electric motors need strong magnets, which can only be made with certain minerals known as rare-earth elements (REEs)