A Response to Climate Change, But Will it Work?

By now, if you have not heard that climate change is regarded as a problem, you must have been living under a flat rock. At least some of the politicians have recognized that this is a serious problem and they do what politicians do best: ban something. The current craze is to ban the manufacture of vehicles powered by liquid fuels in favour of electric vehicles, the electricity to be made from renewable resources. That sounds virtuous, but have they thought out the consequences?

The world consumption of petroleum for motor vehicles is in the order of 23,000 bbl/day. By my calculation, given some various conversion factors from the web, that requires approximately 1.6 GW of continuous extra electric consumption. In fact much more would be needed because the assumptions include 100% efficiency throughout. Note if you are relying on solar power, as many environmentalists want, you would need more than three times that amount because the sun does not shine at night, and worse, since this is to charge electric vehicles, which tend to be running in daytime, such electric energy would have to be stored for use at night. How do you store it?

The next problem is whether the grid could take that additional power. This is hardly an insurmountable problem, but I most definitely needs serious attention, and it would be more comforting if we thought the politicians had thought of this and were going to do something about it. Another argument is, since most cars would be charged at night, the normal grid could be used because there is significantly less consumption then. I think the peaks would still be a problem, and then we are back to where the power is coming from. Of course nuclear power, or even better, fusion power, would make production targets easily. But suppose, like New Zealand, you use hydro power? That is great for generating on demand, but each kWhr still requires the same amount of water availability. If the water is fully used now, and if you use this to charge at night, then you need some other source during the day.

The next problem for the politicians are the batteries, and this problem doubles if you use batteries to store electricity from solar to use at night. Currently, electric vehicles have ranges that are ideal for going to and from work each day, but not so ideal for long distance travel. The answer here is said to be “fast-charging” stops. The problem here is how do you get fast charging? The batteries have a fixed internal resistance, and you cannot do much about that. From Ohm’s law, given the resistance, the current flow, which is effectively the charge, can only be increased by increasing the voltage. At first sight you may think that is hardly a problem, but in fact there are two problems, both of which affect battery life. The first is, in general an overvoltage permits fresh electrochemistry to happen. Thus for the lithium ion battery you run the risk of what is called lithium plating. The lithium ions are supposed to go between what are called intercalation layers on the carbon anode, but if the current is too high, the ions cannot get in there quickly enough and they deposit outside, and cause irreversible damage. The second problem is too fast of charging causes heat to be generated, and that partially destroys the structural integrity of the electrodes.

The next problem is that batteries can be up to half the cost of the purely electric vehicle. Everybody claims battery prices are coming down, and they are. The lithium ion battery is about seven times cheaper than it was, but it will not necessarily get much cheaper because at present ingredients make up 70% of the cost. Ingredient prices are more likely to increase. Lithium is not particularly common, and a massive increase in production may be difficult. There are large deposits in Bolivia but as might be expected, there are other salts present in addition to the lithium salts. There is probably enough lithium but it has to be concentrated from brines and there are the salts you do not want that have to be disposed of, which reduces the “green-ness” of the exercise. Lithium prices can be assumed to go up significantly.

But the real elephant in the room is cobalt. Cobalt is not part of the chemistry of the battery, but it is necessary for the cathode. The battery works by shuttling lithium ions backwards and forwards between the cathode and anode. The cathode material needs to have the right structure to accommodate the ions, be stable so the ions can move in and out, have valence orbitals to accommodate the electron transfer, and the capacity to store as many lithium ions as possible. There are other materials that could replace cobalt, but cobalt is the only one where, when the lithium moves out, something does not move in to fill the spaces. Cobalt is essential for top performance. There are alternatives to use in current technology, but the cost is in poorer lifetimes, and there are alternative technologies, but nobody is sure they work. At present, a car needs somewhere between 7 – 20 kg of cobalt in its batteries, and as you reduce the cobalt content, you appear to reduce the life of the battery.

Cobalt is a problem because the current usage of cobalt in batteries is 48,000 t/a, while world production is about 100,000 t/a. The price is increasing rapidly as electric vehicles become more popular. At the beginning of 2017, a tonne of cobalt would cost $US 32,500; now it is at least $US 80,000. Over half the world’s production comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which may not be the most stable country, and worse, most of that 100,000 t/a comes as a byproduct from copper or nickel production. If there were to be a recession and the demand for stainless steel fell, then the production of cobalt would drop. The lithium ion batteries that would not be affected are the laptops and phones; they only need about 10 – 20 g of cobalt. Even worse, there are a lot of these batteries that currently are not being recycled.

In a previous post I noted there was not a single magic bullet to solve this problem. I stick to that opinion. We need a much broader approach than most of the politicians are considering. By broader, I do not mean the approach of denying we even have a problem.

This post is later than my usual, thanks to time demands approaching Easter, and I hope all my readers have a relaxing and pleasant Easter.