Climate change is inevitably changing our consumption behaviour. We must limit carbon dioxide emissions to ensure liveable conditions for future generations as well. The current pace of climate warming leads to a reduction in living space because heat in some areas will become intolerable.
Recently, emissions from air travel and cars have been the focus of discussion. Special flight taxes and a significant increase in the number of electric cars have been suggested as means to reign in the problem. A sales ban for combustion engines after 2030 has also been called for.
The number of electric cars in traffic will increase but probably not as quickly as is being demanded. The production of electric cars requires huge amounts of raw materials, which the EU has categorised as critical and whose availability and price development embody remarkable risks. Many electric cars use lithium batteries containing a large amount of cobalt. In addition, they have high-efficiency electric motors that are based on permanent magnets.
Permanent magnets, also called neodymium magnets, contain rare earth metals such as neodymium, dysprosium, praseodymium and terbium, which have been categorised as very critical. The same metals are needed in the production of renewable energy, for example, wind energy that also uses permanent magnets. Along with the development of computer technology applications, digitalisation is increasing in our society. Digitalisation can be implemented efficiently only by using these critical raw materials.
Massive growth in electric car production would require a significant increase in the quarrying of critical metals. As more and more lithium-ion batteries are produced, it has been estimated that the need for cobalt will double by 2025. A smartphone includes a few grams of cobalt whereas the battery set of an electric car, depending on the battery capacity, needs 5 to 10 kilograms of cobalt.
The problem with the critical raw materials is that their mineral deposits are concentrated in certain areas of the globe. The rare earth metals market is dominated by China with a share of 90 percent, and the majority of permanent magnets are manufactured there. Of the cobalt used in batteries, 65% comes from Congo. Strongly concentrated production creates threatening scenarios on the availability and price development of the metals. In addition, the ethicality of cobalt production in Congo is at the very least questionable because it is associated with lethally dangerous working conditions and the use of child labour.
Therefore, we must invest in research and development to improve the recycling rate of materials. Currently the recycling of rare earth metals in the EU area does not meet the industry’s demands, the rate being as low as 6% to 7%. This is why the collecting and sorting of electronic devices plays a key role in the solutions of circular economy. In addition to consumer electronics, cars contain a significant amount of electronic devices, which creates still more challenges for the practical implementation of recycling. The collection and dismantling of electronic devices and fireproof handling of materials require specialised operators that are able to collect critical raw materials from massive waste flows. By developing the recycling of materials, from the collection of electronic devices to the recovery of critical raw materials, we can reduce the use of virgin materials and cut down carbon dioxide emissions caused by the increase in quarrying activities and refining of metals.
Senior Lecturer, Department of Chemistry
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