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Non-combustion cars getting attention, in non-obvious ways

Rick DeMeis
9/14/2008 04:00 PM EDT

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henkmol
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re: Non-combustion cars getting attention, in non-obvious ways
henkmol   9/24/2008 8:30:55 AM
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Dear readers, Some weeks ago I commented on this site (automotive design line) because automakers have problems in acquiring batteries for their planned hybrid cars. This problem will not go away shortly! Commercial battery chemistries are for most part based on Lithium Ion and Nickel metal Hydride. Actually these names far from exact, especially if you consider the sourcing of materials neede to make them. They should be re-named to Lithium Cobalt Oxide and Nickel Lanthanum hydride respectively. This is the main issue: where do you get the cobalt and the lanthanum/rare earth mischmetal from! By the way, on top of that the lithium is now also scarce (small tonnage mining nowadays). The production of both metals is really small compared to the volume that automakers will need - just read up the statistics of the USGS (US geological survey) - but do not trust them entirely as some are accurate and some are far off the reality. On top of that there is no open "market" for these metals. Rare earths are 97% from the Peoples Republic of China and really nowhere else. You pay the price, whatever it may be, and live with the volume available, whatever it may be - and believe me it is not much really (10s of thousands of tons / year) compared to the needs of 250 or more thousand tons/year for battery making if we all switch to hybrids. Cobalt for the Lithium batteries is not in a better shape, more than a third is coming for instance from instable Congo. Some 22000 tons yearly end up in batteries, roughly 30% of the total world production per year. And, cobalt is not mined as a primary metal. It is a byproduct of copper and zinc mining - so if some copper mine for instance finds it not worth while to continue its main product than a substantial amount of cobalt production drops out. Story holds by the way also for critical stuff like Tellurium. Collateral damage - now back to the main topic. So, how about the future? Technically looks less problematic than I thought. Lithium batteries looked foolish until a year ago or so, because of the very limited amount of Lithium and Cobalt mined. I thought that any investment in that direction would end up whipping a dead horse. However...Lately the amount of patents on manufacturing methods to produce anodes for Lithium batteries that do not need rare and/or minor metals like cobalt has exploded. Nearly all of them are from Japan and China. I was amazed how detailed the texts are. My luck is that my desk is across a the desk of a Chinese colleage. She translated for me a number of these patents and I got some of the the main stream message that these chinese patents are carrying. Looking at the technology readyness level, It looks like in 3 - 7 years from now there will be mass production of LiFePO4 nanostructured anode materials (o.a. by Mitsui?). So, no Cobalt need in bulk amounts!! Only for "doping" the anodes to tune their chemical stability - you find doping also with rare earths. Reading chinese patents becomes quite fascinating nowadays. In the mean time, the Lithium reserves seem to be very very much underestimated. It is more a question of costs and organisation of starting to mine it, there seems to be about 4 - 8 times the reserve that USGS has in its statistics overview (info from geologists with experience in lithium mining - thanks to responses on earlier comments I sent to this site by other readers thanks guys and girls keep it up!!). This mis-information is troublesome, because industry has to rely on such government backed numbers when doing their investments. On top of that, a new push to re-open US and to newly open Australian mining of Lanthanum/rare earths can probalby double the output if not more. And break the monopoly of Baotou from China. It looks like that both Nickel metal (=lanthanum/"mischmetal"rare earth mixture) hydryde as wel as rechargeable Lithium iron phospate oxide really have a rising chance of making it in the electrical and hybrid vehicles. I was until shortly too pessimistic, and unfortunately we cannot trust at all USGS databases on some of these critical materials. Regards Henk Mol, the Netherlands

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