Sustainable metals for electromobility
The role of sustainable metals for electromobility
Many governments set goals for developing markets for electromobility.
To achieve such goals, we need metals - and despite all the efficiency successes, not less, but more metals are needed than before.
Today, an average car already contains around 150 kilograms of aluminum, 25 kg of copper, 10 kg of zinc and many other metals in addition to steel.
An electric vehicle also requires metals for the electric motor and the energy storage system - such as a lithium-ion battery. The electric motor alone, for example, increases the amount of copper in the vehicle from 25 to 65 kilograms. A 20 KWh lithium-ion battery requires another 100 kg of aluminum, 80 kg of copper, 60 kg of steel and 20 kg of nickel - as well as lithium, cobalt and other rare metals - according to the current state of the art. These are just average numbers, yet, per vehicle!
This simple analysis clearly reveals that without metals - and above all without innovative metal recycling at highest environmental and safety standards - sustainable, resource-conserving development of the emerging market for electromobility is not possible.
This is even more essential when considering that the production of an electric vehicle requires more valuable primary (mineral) or secondary (recycled) resources and also causes higher emissions than is the case with a traditional combustion vehicle.
The role of special and rare metals for electromobility
Special raw materials such as lithium, rare earth metals or cobalt are used in many components of the powertrain, which raises the question of how sustainable the use of electrically powered vehicles actually is and which kind of measures and research tasks exist to provide these metallic materials in a sustainable way, establishing a circular economy for such vehicles, not through cheap marketing slogans but in the real world and through real metallurgy, physics and chemistry. Metals in this group are - besides lithium - copper, cobalt and rare earth metals.
Example: Sustainable Copper for Electromobility
Why is Copper essential for electromobility?
Copper is on the most essential elements for electromobility and generally for the electrification of households, industry and transportation.
It is required for green energy production, an efficient energy network, electrification, automation and digitalization and - above all - mobility.
On average, an electric vehicle contains almost three times as much copper as a vehicle with a conventional combustion engine. Half of this copper is in the accumulator. There is also a high demand for copper in the generation of electricity from renewable energies and the infrastructure needed to charge electric vehicles.
Why is Copper needed for batteries and other vehicle parts?
The lithium-ion battery alone consists of around 18% copper, since the cathode is always made of aluminum and the anode of copper as a carrier material. At least one drive motor and one converter contribute to the fact that there is easily three times as much copper in such a vehicle as in a conventional vehicle with an internal combustion engine - namely around 25 kg in the average gasoline-powered mid-size vehicle. In the future, the weight of copper is expected to rise to as much as 40 kg, as the desire for greater comfort means that many small electric motors containing copper will be needed. The largest increase in copper weight is expected in the area of new components added to electrified vehicles - drive energy storage, electric motor, high-voltage vehicle electrical system, power electronics, etc. In the case of a plug-in hybrid, this can be more than 70 kg of copper in the mid-range, while the electrical car is just below that.
How much Copper is needed for electro-mobility?
The massive introduction of electric traction motors in vehicles will lead to a significant increase in copper demand over the next decade. A recent study, commissioned by the International Copper Association (ICA), shows that by 2030 more than 250,000 tons of copper per year will be used as part of the windings in electric traction motors in on-road electric vehicles. The increase in copper demand follows the development of the global automotive market, where pure battery electric cars are expected to gain the most market share at the expense of internal combustion engines and hybrid vehicles. By 2030, electric and plug-in hybrid cars will account for about 19 percent of the total market, rising to 72 percent by 2040 in a declining automotive market that is expected to peak in 2031.
Recycling of Copper
Recycling conserves resources, reduces environmental impact, and saves energy by eliminating the energy required for the mining, processing, and smelting steps. Copper is one of the most
recycled materials in the world, besides Steel and Aluminium. The collection and trade of scrap and used materials for copper and copper alloys has been well organized. The reason is the excellent
suitability of copper materials for reuse.
About 44% of EU copper demand is matched by recycled copper scrap; about 70% of the copper contained in End-of-Life products is coming from recycled scrap copper. About 90% of the copper used in civil infrastructures comes from secondary material.
The low natural copper supply in the EU (48 million tons) leads to a high dependence on recycling, otherwise imports of primary but also secondary copper would have to increase to meet domestic demand.
Despite the copper scrap used in the domestic production process, additional copper waste and scrap is imported, making the EU a net exporter of copper scrap.
In addition to energy savings, the decisive factor in evaluating the production of metals from return materials and scrap is the quality that can be achieved during recycling. If this is not achieved, then the benefits in terms of energy savings are questionable as the energy requirements of dissimilar materials are compared. For example, unlike copper, with some other metals and with plastics it is not readily possible to produce products of the same quality as those made from virgin metals. With copper, on the other hand, it is possible to produce products that do not differ in any way from those made from primary metals without any loss of quality. The decisive advantage in the recycling of copper materials lies precisely in the fact that copper does not suffer any loss of quality even if it is recycled several times, irrespective of whether metallic or non-metallic, low-copper or high-copper input materials are sent for reuse.
The recycling rate is usually estimated from the quantity produced per year from secondary materials in relation to the total annual production. For copper, this definition results in a recycling rate of approx. 50 %. However, this figure says little about the reuse of a material. This is because the definition does not take into account the fact that end-of-life material comes from durable assets that were manufactured at a time when annual copper production was significantly lower. And when calculating the recycling rate, secondary copper production is based on today's much higher production. This classic recycling rate is misleading in that it does not express the true degree to which end-of-life copper materials are reused.
Another measure for the recycling rate for copper is obtained by referring it on the useful life of the products until reuse and relating the amount of copper reused to the total production at the beginning of the useful life. Copper and copper alloys have a long useful life because of their excellent durability.