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Nothing to charge

3 October 2018

Apparently we're headed for a battery shortage.

Go back a few decades and there really weren't that many battery-powered devices when compared to today. Even when something was powered by a battery, that battery was likely to be either a (primary) dry cell or a (secondary) lead-acid type. The raw materials from which these types of batteries are made are plentiful and cheap.

But in the second decade of the 21st century, just about everything has a battery in it and the odds are that the chemistry used is lithium-based.

Every one of the millions of smartphones in NZ alone, has a lithium battery in it.

Then we've got laptops, cordless appliances, torches, radios and all manner of other portable devices which rely heavily on storing as much energy as possible in as small a space as practical.

Batteries are very popular these days.

Once EVs hit the roads in any significant numbers, the demand for batteries is going to go through the roof.

The ubiquitous 18650 Lithium-Ion cell is already found in a great many devices but even a single EV can use *thousands* of the damned things.

With Tesla now hitting its targets of 5,000 vehicles a week it is effectively using over FORTY MILLION cells a month!

Wow... that's a lot of batteries!

Then of course there are the other car-makers which are already gearing up to go EV and many of those, like Nissan, already outsell the Tesla products by a significant margin.

So where are all these batteries going to come from?

And will we have enough raw materials to meet demand?

Well Tesla has built its own "giga factory" in Nevada where the specially designed Panasonic cells are being made and as a result, they seem to be keeping pace with their own demand. They've also apparently redesigned the chemistry somewhat to reduce the amount of cobalt used in these cells. Whilst lithium is relatively abundant and cheap, cobalt is not -- hence it was suggested that the supply of this element could become the limiting factor in battery production.

However, we're just at the early stages of the EV industry and many experts are predicting a significant shortage of batteries once other big-name auto-makers start gearing up their production lines.

I wonder what steps are being taken to address this looming shortage and whether it will throw a significant spanner in the works of the move to shift our transport fleets away from fossil fuels.

Whilst there are many other potentially useful battery chemistries and technologies on the horizon, none has yet shown itself to be a practical challenger to the lithium-ion cells we're presently using.

The other question I've been wondering about is when they are going to start building the huge recycling plants that will be needed in a few short years, once today's batteries need to be replaced. Every one of those half a billion cells a year that Tesla will be putting into its cars will eventually need to be pulled out and disposed of or recycled -- at a huge cost. Why do we see so little sign of action in this area?

Well from the stuff I've read online, the economics of recycling lithium ion cells are marginal at best. It is really only the cobalt that is worth recovering and now, given that Tesla at least have significantly reduced the cobalt being used in their cells, it's even less likely that they can be recycled economically.

Does this mean we have a looming waste problem that could already be the elephant in the room and upset the prospect of "clean, green" motoring thanks to EVs?

Hmmm... interesting challenges ahead me thinks!

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