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Cornell study examines critical metal demand for electric vehicles

17 April 2023

A new study by a team from the Cornell University and Paul Scherrer Institute has analyzed the impact of automotive electrification on demand for several critical metals. The study, published in Nature Communications, found that as nations electrify their transportation sectors through mid-century, the demand for battery-grade lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and platinum will climb steeply—likely causing substantial economic and supply chain challenges [5749].

In the paper, the researchers examined 48 countries that committed to decarbonize their road transportation through increasing use of electric vehicles (EV), including the United States, China, and India. The study quantified critical metals requirement in electrifying the light- and heavy-duty passenger and freight road fleets in multiple regions, considering a complete range of major EV technologies, including BEVs, PHEVs, HEVs, and FCEVs.

The estimated demand increase for the above metals is:

The mineral resource barrier is aggravated by a highly uneven distribution of critical metals and minerals. Metal resource mining is centralized in many politically unstable countries such as Chile, Congo, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa, while metal refining and processing is dominated by China. The replacement of combustion engine vehicles with EVs would require long-term, uninterrupted access to these foreign resources.

In the paper, the researchers note caution on the electrification of heavy-duty vehicles, which require more critical metals than other vehicles. Although they account for only between 4% and 11% of the total road fleet in some countries, battery-related critical metals used in heavy-duty electric vehicles would account for 62% of the critical metal demand in the decades ahead.

The conclusions of the paper suggest that replacing the existing, combustion engine based transportation system with electric vehicles may not be possible on the envisioned scale and within the envisioned timeframe. This is in agreement with other major analyses—for instance, an in-depth study by the Geological Survey of Finland (GTK) found that, due to resource barriers, replacing the existing fossil fuel powered system using renewable technologies will not be possible for the entire global human population [5227].

Source: Cornell University