EVs (electric vehicles) are speeding on the scene at a rapid rate—something my team and I love to talk about and one we have shared a lot right here on this blog many times. But we would be remiss if we didn’t address the fact that material shortages are quickly putting the brakes on the rapid growth? Research from a university in Europe uncovers some interesting trends.
With the growth of electrification and digitalization in the car, there is a growing need for critical metals in electric vehicles, but the challenge is only a small amount of metals are currently recycled from end-of-life vehicles and the amount of recycling does not meet production needs. This is illustrated in a finding from a major survey led by Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, on behalf of the European Commission.
A Closer Look at Critical Metals
But first, let’s define a few things. What exactly are critical metals? In general, these are materials that have economic importance to a certain industry or geographic region where there is a risk of supply shortages for various reasons. Generally speaking the digital world we live in is dependent on critical metals in our computers, smartphones, electronic components, solar cells, batteries, and electric motors.
Looking at electrification, 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, according to the research. Extraction is generally done in a few key countries such as China, South Africa, and Brazil, which means the lack of availability is both an economic and an environmental problem.
This is illustrated in the EU’s Critical Raw Materials Act, which emphasizes the need to enhance cooperation with trade partners and to improve the recycling of both critical and strategic raw materials.
In order to take a closer look at the challenge that exists, Chalmers University of Technology, in partnership with other organizations, surveyed the metals that are currently in use in Europe’s vehicle fleet. The results show the presence of metals in 60 vehicle types and covers 11 different metals. It covers the period from 2006 to 2023, with the last three years being a forecast.
This survey shows the proportion of critical metals has increased significantly in vehicles—and 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%, respectively, in new cars during the period of the study. The challenge is it is economically difficult to recycle.
As we look to the future, there are a lot of opportunities to address such challenges head on. Auto makers could search for alternative materials. Researchers could hunt for new ways to recycle. Or innovators could identify new ways to create materials. Let me give you an example in a different vertical market: 3D printing.
While this isn’t necessarily going to solve our EV problem, 3D printing has the potential to lead to the development of new materials. As we move to clean energy in many sectors such as defense and aerospace, titanium and titanium alloys are essential. New research provides deeper insights, led by the University of Sydney and RMIT in collaboration with Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence. This research reveals there is an opportunity for new, more sustainable high-performance titanium alloys for applications in aerospace, biomedical, chemical engineering, space, and energy technologies. Simply the sky is the limit for new innovation and opportunities.
The new materials belong to an alloy class that has been the backbone of the titanium industry. They consist of a mixture of two forms of titanium crystals, called alpha-titanium phase and beta-titanium phase, each corresponding to a specific arrangement of atoms.
While titanium alloys have traditionally been produced by adding aluminum and titanium, the researchers investigated the use of oxygen and iron—abundant and inexpensive elements that can act as powerful stabilizers and strengtheners of alpha- and beta-titanium phases. What’s more, 3D printing offers a way to make novel alloys and has recycling benefits.
The bottomline is we need to identify the problems before us—which Chalmers University of Technology continues to do in such areas as the EV space—then we need to look for solutions for the betterment of all—which the University of Sydney and RMIT have done in aerospace and other verticals. What are you seeing in your own industry?
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