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Metal shortage could put the brakes on electrification

As more and more electric cars are travelling on the roads of Europe, this
is leading to an increase in the use of the critical metals required for
components such as electric motors and electronics. With the current raw
material production levels there will not be enough of these metals in
future – not even if recycling increases. This is revealed by the findings
of a major survey led by Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, on
behalf of the European Commission.

Electrification and digitalisation are leading to a steady increase in the
need for critical metals* in the EU’s vehicle fleet. Moreover, only a small
proportion of the metals are currently recycled from end-of-life vehicles.
The metals that are highly sought after, such as dysprosium, neodymium,
manganese and niobium, are of great economic importance to the EU, while
their supply is limited and it takes time to scale up raw material
production. Our increasing dependence on them is therefore problematic for
several reasons.

“The EU is heavily dependent on imports of these metals because extraction
is concentrated in a few countries such as China, South Africa and Brazil.
The lack of availability is both an economic and an environmental problem
for the EU, and risks delaying the transition to electric cars and
environmentally sustainable technologies. In addition, since many of these
metals are scarce, we also risk making access to them difficult for future
generations if we are unable to use what is already in circulation”, says
Maria Ljunggren, Associate Professor in Sustainable Materials Management at
Chalmers University of Technology.

A serious situation, but Swedish deposit offers hope

Ljunggren points out that the serious situation affecting Europe’s critical
and strategic raw materials is underlined in the Critical Raw Materials Act
recently put forward by the European Commission. The Act emphasises the need
to enhance cooperation with reliable external trading partners and for
member states to improve the recycling of both critical and strategic raw
materials. It also stresses the importance of European countries exploring
their own geological resources.

In Sweden the state-owned mining company LKAB reported on significant
deposits of rare earth metals in Kiruna at the start of the year. Successful
exploration enabled the company to identify mineral resources of more than a
million tonnes of oxides – which they now describe as the largest known
deposit of its kind in Europe.

“This is extremely interesting, especially the discovery of neodymium which,
among other things, is used in magnets in electric motors. The hope is that
it will help make us less dependent on imports in the long run,” she says.

Substantial increase in the use of critical metals

Together with the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and
Technology, EMPA, Ljunggren has surveyed the metals that are currently in
use in Europe’s vehicle fleet. The assignment comes from the European
Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), and has resulted in an extensive
database that shows the presence over time of metals in new vehicles,
vehicles in use and vehicles that are recycled.

The survey, which goes back as far as 2006, shows that the proportion of
critical metals has increased significantly in vehicles, a development which
the researchers believe will continue. Several of the rare earth elements
are among the metals that have increased the most.

“Neodymium and dysprosium usage has increased by around 400 and 1,700
percent respectively in new cars over the period, and this is even before
electrification had taken off. Gold and silver, which are not listed as
critical metals but have great economic value, have increased by around 80
percent,” says Ljunggren.

The idea behind the survey and the database is to provide decision-makers,
companies and organisations with an evidence base to support a more
sustainable use of the EU’s critical metals. A major challenge is that these
materials, which are found in very small concentrations in each car, are
economically difficult to recycle.

Recycling fails to meet requirements

“If recycling is to increase, cars need to be designed to enable these
metals to be recovered, while incentives and flexible processes for more
recycling need to be put in place. But that’s not the current reality”, says
Ljunggren, who stresses that a range of measures are needed to deal with the
situation.

“It is important to increase recycling. At the same time, it is clear that
an increase in recycling alone cannot meet requirements in the foreseeable
future, just because the need for critical metals in new cars is increasing
so much. Therefore there needs to be a greater focus on how we can
substitute other materials for these metals. But in the short term it will
be necessary to increase extraction in mines if electrification is not to be
held back”, she says.

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