A recent study by Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology found that the current global production levels of raw materials will not match the demand of the European Union’s EV industry, not even when accounting for recycling.
The paper points out that the metals that are highly sought after, such as dysprosium, neodymium, manganese and niobium, are of great economic importance to the EU, while their supply is limited and it takes time to scale up raw material production.
“The EU is heavily dependent on imports of these metals because extraction is concentrated in a few countries such as China, South Africa and Brazil. The lack of availability is both an economic and an environmental problem for the EU, and risks delaying the transition to electric cars and environmentally sustainable technologies,” Maria Ljunggren, lead author of the study, said in a media statement.
“In addition, since many of these metals are scarce, we also risk making access to them difficult for future generations if we are unable to use what is already in circulation.”
Together with the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, EMPA, Ljunggren has surveyed the metals that are currently in use in Europe’s vehicle fleet. The assignment has resulted in an extensive database that shows the presence over time of 11 metals in new vehicles, vehicles in use and vehicles that are recycled.
The survey, which goes back as far as 2006, shows that the proportion of critical metals has increased significantly in vehicles, a development the researchers believe will continue. Several rare earth elements are among the metals that have increased the most.
“Neodymium and dysprosium usage has increased by around 400% and 1,700% respectively in new cars over the period, and this is even before electrification had taken off,” Ljunggren said. “Gold and silver, which are not listed as critical metals but have great economic value, have increased by around 80%.”
According to the researcher, the idea behind the survey and the database is to provide decision-makers, companies and organizations with an evidence base to support a more sustainable use of the EU’s critical metals. A major challenge is that these materials, which are found in very small concentrations in each car, are economically difficult to recycle.
“If recycling is to increase, cars need to be designed to enable these metals to be recovered, while incentives and flexible processes for more recycling need to be put in place. But that’s not the current reality”, Ljunggren noted.
“It is important to increase recycling. At the same time, it is clear that an increase in recycling alone cannot meet requirements in the foreseeable future, just because the need for critical metals in new cars is increasing so much. Therefore there needs to be a greater focus on how we can substitute other materials for these metals. But in the short term, it will be necessary to increase extraction in mines if electrification is not to be held back.”