Do we have enough Rare Earth Metals for EVs?

It's important to distinguish between: 'rare-', 'precious-', and 'critical-' earth elements. The terms are not interchangeable, but unfortunately often are in popular media.  It's also important to distinguish between 'reserves' and 'resources'. Reserves denote the amount that can be technically recovered at a cost that is financially feasible at the present price. Resources include all that can be technically recovered at any price. 

Electronics

Electric vehicles typically use two precious earth metals: gold and silver. These are used in minute quantities in the circuit boards, which also occurs in modern fossil fuelled vehicles. The circuit boards run the electronics. These metals are fully recyclable.

Batteries

Critical earth elements typically found in Electric Vehicle batteries are: lithium and cobalt, both fully recyclable (including in NZ.) Both Lithium and cobalt metals can be reused over and over repeatedly.

These two elements are not particularly rare – cobalt can be found in most rocks, and lithium is the first metal in the periodic table and one of only three elements created in the primordial Big Bang. Lithium is the 32nd most common element on our planet. But both metals are critical because of modern societies' dependence on lithium-ion battery technology for mobile phones, laptops, and now EVs. And also, in the case of cobalt, because of geopolitics: the bulk of the cobalt supply comes from the politically unstable Democratic Republic of Congo. While there are plenty of lithium and cobalt resources, there are fewer reserves of them.

Cobalt is a byproduct of nickel and copper mines, and is therefore dependent on the economic viability of those mining operations.

Worldwide sources of lithium are broken down by ore-deposit type as follows: closed-basin brines, 58%; pegmatites and related granites, 26%; lithium-enriched clays, 7%; oilfield brines, 3%; geothermal brines, 3%; and lithium-enriched zeolites, 3% (2013 statistics USGS). Of those, closed basin brines are the most important source of lithium reserves.

Put simplistically, dissolved lithium salts are most commonly mined by drilling down to underground saline deposits and pumping the saline to the surface where it is left to dry in the desert sun, before being processed into lithium metal (and other elements, like Potash and Magnesium.) Typically they don't pump hot fresh water into the deposits — that's a different process used to dissolve the rock salts in an alternative method of potash mining. 

Motors

Rare earth elements, such as neodymium, terbium, or dysprosium, are found in a permanent magnet motor. Not all EVs use permanent magnet motors. Induction motors are based on copper coils.

“Some electric car motors use the permanent magnet technology, probably the most famous is the Tesla Model 3 Long Range. All the other Tesla models — Model X and Model 3 standard — use induction motors,” said David Merriman, a senior analyst at metals consultancy Roskill.

Other parts of an EV

Other parts of an EV may use rare earths to produce, eg: aluminium. But a traditional car is just as likely to be full of all the same components, eg: steel, plastics, epoxies, circuit boards, carbon fibre, glass, nickel, copper, lead acid battery, etc.  

So, when the argument comes up that Electric Vehicles use rare earth metals, the nay-sayers often conveniently forget that the status quo (ie: fossil fuelled vehicles) is no better, and probably worse, in this respect.

Earth Elements used in Fossil Fuelled Cars that are not used in BEVs

In comparison, we must also remember that fossil fuelled internal combustion engines also use precious and rare earth metals. The catalytic converter, whose job it is to reduce nasty emissions from exhaust, use palladium, rhodium, cerium, and/or platinum.

in addition, oil refining uses rare earths, such as lanthanum.

But what about the auto manufacturing process: electricity from coal, etc?

Unlike traditional auto factories, many electric vehicle auto makers are currently in the process of transforming their factories to use only green energy and green electricity.  (eg: VW, BMW, Tesla) According to an EECA study, total emissions from production and destruction of light passenger vehicles (not counting the life of the vehicle) is 20% less for battery electric vehicles (BEV) over internal combustion engine vehicles, world wide. That's a worthwhile saving.

Critical Resource Reserves

According to OPEC, at the end of 2018 there was a worldwide reserve of just under 1,500 billion barrels of crude oil. According to Statista.com, the world consumption rate of crude oil is 36,719 million barrels per year (2019 projection.) This equates to about 40 years of crude oil (oil & gas hydrocarbons) left in reserves. 

In comparison, according to USGS*, there were 13,919 million metric tons of lithium reserves at the end of 2018. By 2025, estimated predictions are that we'll be consuming 422,614 metric tons of lithium-carbonate-equivalent annually (up from 212,719 tons in 2016.) Even if we ended up using twice as much as those predictions, we'd still have plenty of reserves. However, despite the reserves, production is not keeping up with demand, according to some (unsourced) publications.

*USGS: United States Geological Survey government department.
OPEC: The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, an intergovernmental organisation of 14 nations
Statista.com: a German online portal for statistics, which collates data derived from market and opinion research institutes, the economic sector, and official international governmental statistics

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