Are Western Governments Ideas About Electric Cars a Pipedream?

Electric cars have a lot of advantages. Overall, they are more efficient at providing power and because electricity generation can be done on a large scale using power stations of various types they will be cleaner overall.  The problem comes with how to provide that mobile power on the road. This is done mainly with lithium batteries, most of the other forms of power being a fail in that respect. LPG cars, although cleaner than petrol or diesel never really took off, in most cases being an afterthought than really designing cars for this fuel.

Electric power is still a relatively new source of motive power, though this is changing slowly, there being few electric power points and those that are there tend to be expensive compared to charging the car from home, sometimes 4 times the cost. Because of the recent problems with electricity provision the cost of power using those is getting close to the cost of petrol, forgetting that at the moment the depreciation for electric cars is around twice that of petrol or diesel. So, in economic terms, if you use the car travelling around a lot and things like quick charging stations you will probably be paying about 50% more in cost than conventional fuels for doing so, adding to the transport burden of your business, resources that will need to be accounted for in conventional pollution.

The UK intends to phase out petrol, diesel and even hybrid cars, following in the world’s footsteps, but is this even a practical intention? AT the moment there are about 1.4 billion active cars in the world, about 34 million in the UK, only a small proportion currently being electric. Electric cars in the world at the moment number about 6 million, 1 million of those in the UK. But the figures are generally fudged, counting all vehicles registered and produced in the world and UK rather than those that are still viable. To do so for non-viable petrol and diesel cars in a similar way pushes the number of cars up by 50%, probably to over 2 billion and 45 million in the UK. Cars that are less than 40KWH for their batteries are becoming rare and the batteries are becoming larger rather than smaller to try and emulate the range of petrol and diesel ones. A good petrol or diesel car can manage about 450 miles on a tank in all weathers, a good electric one around 250 miles.

The idea then is to produce more electric cars. The trouble is that apart from a few very suspect changes most will require a lithium battery. The other forms of battery are still in the provable but commercially unlikely stages, similar to fusion reactors that have constantly been on the cards for over 70 years, making trivial advances, but getting nowhere near a working and commercially viable device. The money spent on this area would have made major advances in other ones, but the research finances available have been virtually hogged by the devout who believe they can make it actual.

Electric commercial vehicles are really only in the car derived level at the moment, electric heavy goods vehicles, planes and ships impractical due to the difference of characteristics between types of motors. Electric trains have become commonplace though, none of them being from mobile storage, and all needing heavy duty cables direct from the grid for power. Try doing this for HGVs, shipping or airlines and you need a lot of cable. It may be possible to create a underground grid for this purpose in a small country, but there may be unacceptable problems and especially extra power losses in doing this. We have pylons to reduce energy loss when massively stepping up power and interconnectors don’t deliver as much power at the other end as goes into them at the start.

So, what of lithium? It’s a highly reactive metal that is very common, but being so reactive and useful it is hard to get at unless you use a lot of power to do so. Evaporation using the suns power to concentrate it, preferably at an elevated altitude, is the most cost efficient, so large pools of standing water that evaporates currently are the practical necessity. Unless a large concentrated deposit is found this is unlikely to change. The downside is the effects on the local area of doing this. You can’t use it for much else and can make the area unusable for anything else for a long time, so doing it in a farming or wildlife area is completely out.

Currently the lithium production is around 100,000 tonnes a year. Various figures concerning amounts of lithium in batteries have been considered and generally a figure of 0.16kg of high-grade lithium is required for 1KWH of motive power. Although people working out practical use of lithium carbonate have come up with figures as high as 2Kg per KWH being the provision, that works out at a 5.3 industry standard to about requiring 0.377Kg per KWH, slightly over double that figure, so a figure of 0.26Kg per KWH is probably currently in the ball park.

Lithium production is about 4 times the level it was 20 years ago when lithium batteries really took off, being in most portable devices, mobile phones being a large amount of this, but only really jumping to its current level 6 years ago when two new production sites came on line with production at the moment unlikely to change much except by small percentages over the next decade. I think it likely that lithium will probably not exceed 250,000 tonnes within the next 10 years, so the requirement will probably push the prices up as fast as this relatively scarce resource have in the past. Due to economies of scale lithium batteries are now 1/8th of the price they were 10 years ago, still requiring a similar amount of lithium, but the cell pack and other cell contents have dramatically reduced by about 9 times. This has happened even though lithium prices have quadrupled in that time, the total lithium content being around 3.5% of the cost of its production 10 years ago and 19% of the cost of its production now, so the overall cost will probably now be on a steady plateau.

Unless there is a dramatic and immediate new set of methods for power storage we are stuck with lithium, at least for the next decade, maybe two. Of the lithium produced for batteries, very little is recycled, most of the processes now being investigated using too much power to make them viable. Old car batteries can be taken apart and repacked with new cells replacing those that have failed and repurposed for home storage, but with a more limited life. The best option would be to simply break them apart and dump them in standing pools of water allowing nature to concentrate the metals, but you would have similar problems of environmental damage that the environmentalists would violently object to, so is probably not a socially acceptable option. They tend to want keep their cake and eat it.

So, allowing for 50% mobile phone and other battery storage equipment and 50% cars and other vehicles we have the UK directive that half of new UK vehicles to be electric by 2030, 8 years’ time and all of them by 2050, 28 years’ time. So, saying about 2 million vehicles a year, drivers not wanting less than a 50KWH battery in each, at about 0.26Kg per KWH that would work out to a requirement of about 26,000 tonnes of lithium a year, or half the world’s current allocation and production at 50% for cars.

I think it unlikely with the prices still likely to double or quadruple in that time the world will allow the UK or any other government to do similar and to hog half of its production of lithium to achieve this, and governments will need to re-think their current naïve assumptions and plans.

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