There war in Ukraine brought out the strong dependence on Russian gas and oil of our and other European countries, but another form of dependence could materialize with the stop of 2035 to the registrations of internal combustion engine vehicles. The transition to electric traction is actually changing the automotive supply chain: as illustrated in a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA)and as the Minister for Ecological Transformation also pointed out in a recent interview, Roberto Cingolani, there production of electric cars is strong today depending on China. To manufacture the batteries, the “fuel” in electric cars, extensive use is made of metals such as lithium, nickel, cobalt and graphite; China is the largest producer of graphite alone, but it is also China that has the largest share of the processing capacity for these metals, and three quarters of lithium-ion batteries now come from China.
The problems of extraction and production of lithium
In addition to an addiction problem, the use of lithium and other metals supply problems: As highlighted in another IEA report from last year, the world will have to face potentials deficiencies of lithium and cobalt already in 2025, unless sufficient investment is made to expand production. Currently, more than half of lithium comes from Australia, where it is produced by extraction from rock deposits, but most of the world’s reserves are found in the “lithium triangle”, a dry area between Bolivia, Chile and Argentinawhere lithium can be obtained from a process of evaporation of brackish deposits, which can be catastrophic from an environmental point of view because it requires high water consumption with consequent water imbalances and damage to the ecosystem in already arid areas.
Then there is the paradox of CO2 emissions: the push to produce zero-emission vehicles will increase the demand for lithium and with it the emissions related to its extraction, production and transport, emissions determined according to a 2020 study by the Roskill company. to triple by 2025 and grow by a factor of six by 2030.
Even rare earths made in China
However, dependence on China does not stop with batteries. The most common electric motors, it should be remembered that even hybrid and plug-in cars use electric traction motors, are of the permanent magnet type and for the manufacture of this component neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium and terbium are used, all metals belonging to the group of “Rare countries” and it is still there China will extract 91% of “rare earth” metals and to produce 94% of rare earth composite magnets.
Faced with this strong addiction, the first setbacks begin to emerge. Car manufacturers have reduced the use of rare earths in the construction of electric motors, it is e.g. Toyotawhile BMW for iX Series models and Renault for Zoe, they use Eesm motors – Externally Excited Synchronous Motors – synchronous motors with separate excitation – which do not have permanent magnets because they send power to the rotor by means of sliding switches (brushes).
There is also something moving at the political level. Guaranteeing critical raw materials for the European market is the main purpose of European Raw Materials Alliance (Erma) which in September last year launched a call for action on rare earth magnets and motors with the aim of making Europe more autonomous. Erma has already identified possible € 1.7 billion investment projects ranging from rare earth extraction to magnet production; if these projects were carried out, it was explained, 20% of Europe’s need for rare earth magnets could come from the EU by 2030.