It’s probably too late to make any real money out of the upcoming boom in electric vehicles (EVs) unless you are already in the club. However, if you are, there is a fortune to be made and maybe lost.
You only have to take a look at how the prices of Lithium and Cobalt have changed in the last couple of years. There are also potential issues – physically and politically – surrounding at least one of the materials used extensively in an Electric Vehicle’s (EV’s) power source and the environmentalists haven’t even begun to get going on the impact of providing electricity to charge so many vehicles at the end of the working day and what to do about the millions of expended battery packs.
Recent Government announcements in the UK and other places have made it quite clear that vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine have no place on the roads of the future. And right now the only contender to replace them is EVs.
As an alternative to petrol, diesel and LPG cars, EVs have had a stuttering start. Most are expensive, some don’t really have a useful range and, in many countries, drivers are faced with a pretty poor public charging infrastructure. Also, governments in a host of countries have begun to reduce or eliminate the grant and personal tax benefits afforded to the early adopters. Some of these benefits do backfire though. Take London, for example, where a Toyota Prius Hybrid is free of the daily £11.50 congestion charge which is why it is the vehicle of choice for the thousands of UBER drivers clogging up London’s streets.
The car makers and other ‘disruptive’ companies will currently be striving to design totally new EV platforms and will be working alongside battery makers to develop a power source that will give the EV a meaningful range and one that will take a charge in a matter of minutes and not the hours that most take today.
Electronics manufacturers will also be working hard to develop components and systems that will help control the next generation of EV power packs since they need a different form of monitoring and management to that of a conventional vehicle. The many tens of cells in these battery packs need to be carefully and individually charged and monitored since they respond in a bad way to mistreatment like short circuit, over voltage and over temperature, while loss of charge is another key monitoring parameter. And this monitoring and management needs to be over the lifetime of the battery pack.
Sourcing Cobalt could be a problem
The battery chemistry of choice for current EVs is Lithium-ion (LIB) and there are various ways these can be formulated. Lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (LiNiMnCoO2 or NMC) is a popular choice and like all the others it uses Cobalt.
Cobalt is pretty hard to find and isolate and it seems that most of it comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It’s a pound to a penny bet that not too many DRC people are really benefiting from the boom in demand for Cobalt and recent reports highlight some terrible working conditions in the mines there, many involving children.
As a result there will be many who will feel they should boycott suppliers with this type of attitude to their workers. Not an easy thing to do since these mining/refining companies are practically the only source of a key material. Right now, there will be many teams working around the world to develop alternative EV power sources. Let’s hope they do it before the EV industry is held to a form of ransom.
Battery packs – a second life?
Once the battery pack has reached the point when it will not charge beyond (say) 80% and therefore no use as the fuel for an EV, it is time to either recycle or find another use. One potential application for a second life is grid energy storage where the packs are used to power houses, offices or support the main grid in the event of a surge in demand. Maybe even when all the EVs are demanding power.
Whatever the second life brings, it will be great if these expensive power sources can be put to good use before they are stripped of all useful materials and then dumped.
The EV industry will face some difficult ethical and environmental questions as the industry takes off. Responsible re-use of the battery packs will help to answer some of these issues and, who knows, it might even turn a tidy profit.