It is increasingly common to see an electric car rolling stealthily through the streets. Their sales have increased, including those in the eco-luxury market, and they have become a viable option for more and more people. Nowadays almost all automotive manufacturers bet the future on electric ones. In addition, institutions promote them as a formula against climate change and to decontaminate cities. The European Union wants at least 30 million electric cars on the roads by 2030. For that same date, the United States has established that half of new registrations are electric, while China has set a target of 40%.
However, its mass adoption still presents major obstacles. The typical obstacles that are usually cited for the electric motor to replace the combustion engine are its high price, the lack of a charging infrastructure and its low autonomy. But there are other difficulties, of an industrial nature, for electric cars to become ubiquitous on the roads.
In lithium-ion batteries in electric cars, the negative pole is made by graphite, one of the forms carbon found in nature. It is the only material that is used for this purpose. "Carbon is a material that doesn't seem very critical. It is very abundant in the earth's crust," says Belén Sotillo, a researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid in the Department of Materials Physics. "The problem with batteries is that the graphite that is incorporated has to be processed. And most of the processing plants are in China." That is why the European Union includes graphite in its list of critical materials; On that list are also lithium, cobalt, nickel or manganese, all components of an electric car battery.
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Graphite is also the heaviest material in a lithium-ion battery. It varies between 50 and 100 kilograms, according to the consulting firm Kearny. This means that for every 10 million electric cars that are manufactured, between 500,000 and one million tons of this material will be needed. And currently the global production of graphite, for all its uses, only reaches one million tons.
Sotillo points out that it is already looking to scale production, but recognizes that it is very complicated. Another option is to replace it, but it is not easy either. "Once we had verified that there is an alternative and that it works well, we would have to establish that industry," explains the researcher. "And that's often difficult. You have to move the whole industry to the new materials."
The opposite happens to the component for which batteries are known as graphite. "Lithium is a very scarce element in the earth's crust, so the amount of material that could be obtained to make electric cars is limited," says Sotillo.
Geoscientist Hannah Ritchie, from the University of Oxford (United Kingdom), did the numbers about it. It is estimated that there are 88 million tons of lithium on Earth, but of that only 22 million are extractable. With all these reserves, Ritchie estimated, 2.800 billion electric batteries can be manufactured. It is difficult to know how many cars there are in the world, but some estimates point to a figure around 1,400 million. If both numbers are compared, they do not exactly give a situation of abundance. Do not forget that part of the lithium will have to be used for other uses that it already has today.
"The other problem with lithium is that it's an element that tends to be very reactive. Once you have used up the battery it is very difficult to recover it, "warns Sotillo. Physics indicates that there is also research to replace this material. "Sodium or potassium, in a lithium-like battery technology, are elements that would have a lower capacity to store energy, but are more easily recoverable and more abundant."
Electric vehicle battery recycling plant in Weinan, China.VCG (Getty Images)
Keep in mind that the battery of an electric vehicle occupies the entire chassis. And it only lasts about ten years. When the time comes to change it, the odyssey of recycling begins. Félix Antonio López, CSIC researcher and head of the Recycling Laboratory of this organization, mentions a key fact: in a recycling plant, the dismantling of the batteries is done by hand, since there are still no automated processes.
"Where the problems are is in the recycling of the internal battery," says López. Inside there are modules, composed of cells or batteries. "Those piles are crushed. And then separation operations are carried out, aimed primarily at separating plastics and copper. But these separations are not perfect. And the result is what we know as black masses." They are named for the dominance of graphite. But they also contain nickel, cobalt, manganese (from the cathode), as well as lithium, phosphorus or fluorine (present in the battery electrolyte). It is not easy to recover these elements and it is expensive to do so due to the lack of automation. For now, all that black mass is sent for recycling to China.
Scaling up recycling is difficult, Lopez says. The researcher calculates that there may be productive technology, which can be transferred to companies, in a horizon of five or six years. From there it would have to be taken to an industrial scale, something that also takes time.
The mass adoption of electric cars will also lead to greater demands on the electricity grid. In this scenario, Antonio Gómez Expósito, professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Seville, distinguishes between two concepts: energy, which has to be produced in the plants, and power, which represents the speed at which electricity is delivered.
"In Spain there is no relevant problem in terms of energy production," says Gómez. And it is that at night they stop or reduce the productivity of some thermal and nuclear power plants because they are not necessary. That is, there is infrastructure to produce more energy than the country consumes.
The limit would be in the power of the electrical network. "If everyone charges their car at the peak of consumption in the afternoon, as in principle would be logical, there would be a big problem, both in the transport network and in the distribution," says Gómez. "To avoid this, the idea is to encourage cars to charge for the rest of the night."
Even so, in a scenario with millions of electric cars, one would expect problems in the distribution network, which involves medium and low voltage. When electricity is generated in a power plant, it goes through high voltage to a substation and, from there, passes through medium voltage to the transformer centers, which distribute the electricity through low voltage wiring to homes and businesses.
"A transformer center can typically feed between 100 and 300 customers. If, of all these people, those who had cars charged them at the same time, even at night, the low-voltage radial distribution network that reaches those housing blocks would have to be reinforced," explains Gómez. And this would be work that would have to be done at the local level, in cities and neighborhoods.
Coordinating on a large scale the charging of vehicles and updating part of the electricity grid are two other obstacles to a massive irruption of electric cars. But all these difficulties will only become apparent over time, as their adoption becomes more widespread.
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