This is an exciting time indeed for aluminium consumption, with demand for this highly versatile metal continuing to rise to dizzying heights with every new estimate. Among the brighter stars in the consumption constellation continues to be that of electric vehicles. As has been detailed in these pages over the years, the rise of the electric vehicle will likely éabe a boon for aluminium, largely due to its advantageous strength-to-weight ratio, which is often boosted when alloyed with other common metals.
“It seems that the whole world is united when it comes to the adoption of electric vehicles,” noted aluminium industry consultant and regular AI contributor Goran Djukanovic. EV’s have carved out a respectable niche in the automotive market, accounting for sales of 3.5 million passenger vehicles and 421,000 electric buses through last summer. With an average of 250 kg of aluminium per unit, last year’s total aluminium demand by EV makers totaled around 250 thousand metric tons. Though already a respectable total, experts say demand from the EV market is likely to rise tenfold through 2030, topping out at 10 million metric tons per annum.
By all estimations, sales of EVs are shaping up to experience a dramatic increase. As consumers increasingly view EVs as a worthwhile competitor to internal-combustion engine vehicles, sales are expected to balloon, growing EVs’ market share from 4 percent in 2017 to an expected 30 percent in 2030. Globally, the number of EVs was projected at over 4 million as of the end of 2018, with over half a million charging stations available to their owners, half of which were in the People’s Republic of China. This is consummate with the fact that China is expected to lead the charge, given its fast-growing automotive market. Thanks to Beijing’s push for EV use, experts see China as the world’s biggest EV market through at least 2040.
Progress in battery technology
Mainstream acceptance of EVs is closely tied to development of affordable, reliable, and long-lasting batteries, making it a field of intense research and an arena for breakthroughs. Researchers at South Korea’s Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology announced last fall the development of a new high-energy aluminium-air flow battery that is more efficient than the traditional gasoline-powered engines. Researchers say the key is replacing – not recharging – the depleted battery packs, thus avoiding the time-consuming and potentially dangerous practice of recharging batteries. The new aluminium-air flow batteries produce electricity simply by reacting with oxygen in the ambient air instead of from an electrical source. Aluminium-air batteries also hold a greater charge, weigh less, and cost less to produce than existing lithium-ion batteries.
While South Korean scientists continue the pursuit of a better battery, a Swiss company says it has made a tremendous leap forward in battery range. Innolith, a start-up, revealed earlier this month the development of the first 1,000 Wh/kg (Watt-hours per kilogram) rechargeable battery. Unlike other wet lithium-ion cells, Innolith has replaced the organic substance acting as the solvent for the battery’s electrolytes with an inorganic compound, and thereby making the battery less flammable. The technology is also capable of powering the average EV to over 600 miles, according to the firm. If the technology is proven to be solid, it would put it ahead of its closest competitor, Tesla, as the best of the American firm’s batteries so far only manages to propel its vehicles to 330 miles per charge.
No surprise then that researchers at Tesla Motors are exploring several avenues for improving EV batteries. Currently the firm’s batteries are engineered to last between 300,000 and 500,000 miles before requiring maintenance, and the portion in need of attention is the individual battery modules and not the entire battery pack. The company itself is plugging the gap with quality guarantees, promising that its batteries will last the car’s operator for 8 years or 160,000 miles, guaranteeing that the batteries will maintain a 75-percent retention capacity under normal use.
Wither environmental concerns?
Progress in these respects notwithstanding, the biggest concern surrounding EVs remains sustainability. Up until recently, spent batteries posed a serious pollution problem due to the metals used in their construction and the dangers these posed to the environment if not appropriately and responsibly disposed of. At present, a significant percentage of EV batteries can already be reclaimed, though a breakthrough by the Finnish firm Fortum earlier this year may potentially boost recycling rates to up to 80 percent. The process involves separating out the cast-off batteries into their constituent plastics, copper, and aluminium, and routing them to the appropriate recycling process. What remains is lithium, manganese, cobalt, and nickel, which Fortum precipitates out in a chemical process, allowing these elements to be returned to battery manufacturers for use in a new generation of batteries.
EVs continue to show more and more promise as a significant growth area for aluminium as time goes by. Increased market penetration, spurred on by public initiatives and private efforts at building a better, more reliable product, bodes only good tidings for an industry that relies increasingly upon the ready availability of aluminium and its alloys. While political machinations and market fluctuations may cause consternation in the short term, the rise of EVs in the global marketplace holds the greatest of promise for both the primary and recycled aluminium sectors in the years ahead.