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Demand for battery minerals is increasing — how can we keep up?

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This week:

  • Demand for battery minerals is increasing — how can we keep up?
  • Taking inspiration from Greta Thunberg, more seniors are joining the climate fight
  • Making climate data more human: drone footage of Fiona damage inspires P.E.I. art exhibit

Demand for battery minerals is increasing — how can we keep up?

A handful of electric semi-trucks parked next to each other.
(Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images)

Electric vehicles are more popular than ever, and widespread adoption of them is a key part of global plans to decarbonize the transportation sector. 

But the batteries powering these vehicles require a variety of critical minerals — like lithium, cobalt, manganese and nickel — which has some experts concerned about runaway demand.

“Can the supply match the demand or not? If we cannot match the demand, that means we are going to face some bottlenecks,” said Fengqi You, a professor in the department of engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

You authored a recent study that predicts demand for lithium could rise by roughly 3,000 to 7,000 per cent by 2050, while demand for nickel, cobalt and manganese could also increase by thousands of per cent. Making sure we don’t run into supply constraints with these minerals is a key challenge, You warns, and will require careful thought.

His recommendation: prioritize the electrification of certain types of transportation over others.

The Cornell researcher found that heavy-duty vehicles — like buses, semis and large passenger trucks — would account for more than 60 per cent of critical mineral demands, while only accounting for four to 11 per cent of the road fleet and roughly 30 per cent of total transportation emissions.

In other words, it may not be an efficient use of resources to put batteries in heavy-duty vehicles, given that the electrification of light- and medium-duty vehicles would reduce more emissions overall while using fewer mineral resources.

Adam Thorn, director of the transportation program at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian energy think-tank, expects these constraints to ease as countries continue to develop extraction, manufacturing and recycling systems. But he notes the short-term supply crunch may affect our ability to make a rapid transition to EVs.

“What is quite different and distinct about this mode of transportation that we’re shifting to is that it’s material-intensive,” said Thorn. “We know that it’s going to require significant amounts of critical minerals.”

Thorn says different vehicles may require different decarbonization solutions — especially in the diverse heavy-duty vehicle sector. 

“There are lots of ways that we can decarbonize without just a one-to-one transition from an internal combustion engine to an electric vehicle,” Thorn said. 

Lower-weight heavy-duty vehicles that run “relatively short and predictable routes” — like buses and delivery trucks — may be well-suited for battery technology, Thorn argues. But for heavy freight that travels long distances and needs a greater range and faster refuelling, other forms of decarbonization, like hydrogen fuel cells and biofuels, may be preferable.

You also recommends using multiple forms of low-emissions technology in the heavy-duty sector to build a more resilient supply chain.

The International Energy Agency reports 4.5 per cent of buses and 1.2 per cent of medium- and heavy-duty trucks sold worldwide in 2022 were electric.

You and Thorn believe one important piece of the puzzle is the development of a circular economy — that is, a system that emphasizes reusing and recycling materials. In the case of electrifying transport, that means powerful battery recycling.

For Thorn, another critical cog in the wheel of sustainability is a robust system of public transportation — critical mineral demand and emissions can be reduced by encouraging people to take buses or trains, which would reduce the total number of vehicles on the road.

Many countries have successfully reduced emissions through public transportation, says You, but North America has a long-standing reliance on personal transportation that may be difficult to shed.

For Thorn, structural changes — like increased funding and redesigned cities — could get more people out of cars and onto transit and help solve the battery demand crunch.

“Longer term, we need to talk about shifting the urban form,” he said. “We have built cities that are really car-centric, and it’s going to take a while to undo that.”

Adam Beauchemin

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The Big Picture: Seniors are taking climate action

An elderly man sits in his garden.
(Evan Mitsui/CBC)

On April 1, in an event dubbed Fossil Fools Day, people across Canada took part in demonstrations against RBC, the world’s biggest financier of fossil fuel projects, according to a new report by the advocacy group Banking on Climate Chaos. With a large showing of seniors, the event provided more evidence that an older cohort has become galvanized to take climate action.

Nick De Carlo (photo above), the 76-year-old co-founder of Seniors for Climate Action Now! (SCAN), said his organization was formed from the view “that the seniors demographic was concerned about the climate crisis [and that] we were probably the generation that’s been alive through this massive growth of the environmental crisis … and we were also concerned about the future generations.”

While the idea of seniors taking social action is not new – just look at the Raging Grannies — “the level of engagement [on climate change] and the form of it among older people seems to be changing dramatically,” said Tim Gray, executive director of the Canadian advocacy group Environmental Defence.

Bill McKibben, the longtime U.S. environmentalist and founder of the climate advocacy group 350.org, distilled the impetus for action in a recent column in the U.K.’s Guardian. 

“We’re following in the footsteps of young organizers who know that their lives are on the line,” McKibben wrote. “For those of us who are older, it’s our legacy.”

Andre Mayer

Read the full story here.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Making climate data more human: drone footage of Fiona damage inspires P.E.I. art exhibit

A piece of knitted art depicting the P.E.I. shoreline.
(Shane Hennessey/CBC)

A drone’s eye view of P.E.I.’s shoreline served as the inspiration behind a new exhibit of handwoven art, including two pieces depicting damage to the island’s coast caused by post-tropical storm Fiona in 2022.

The drone port at the University of Prince Edward Island’s Canadian Centre for Climate Change and Adaptation in St. Peter’s Bay is not far from the gallery where the art is on display.

Shift is a solo exhibition by artist Rilla Marshall, who for more than a decade has explored the island’s changing coastlines through her artwork.

Marshall said she really got into mapping in 2010. “Part of it was just growing up on P.E.I. always interested in the shoreline as this liminal space that’s in a constant state of transition not only in a physical way … but also on a metaphorical level.”

She said she finds the shoreline “a very rich subject to explore.”

“There’s a lot of artists working with climate change right now. I feel like more and more it’s just become part of our common knowledge, our cultural zeitgeist,” Marshall said.

“I think art can play a really important role in engaging people with the subject of climate change, and making it more accessible and personalized.”

The artist was given access to drone footage that’s been collected since 2018 as part of research into coastal erosion. She then translated those visuals into a series of handwoven pieces.

“Depicting these areas of shoreline that somebody’s familiar with but from a perspective that [you’d never] have unless you have a drone also creates these personal connections to people. [They’re] able to see how those changes affect the shorelines that we love over time,” Marshall said. 

“I think all Islanders feel a strong sense of ‘Islandness’ and a connection to our island. And I think using art to talk about climate change is a great way to pull on those heartstrings a little bit.”

Marshall said the combination of science and art was also inspiring.

“Having a conversation between the ‘old tech’ of weaving and the high-tech production of drone images is a very interesting conversation to have,” Marshall said. “[It’s] taking that hard data and being able to translate it into something that’s a little bit more human.”

Alexis Bulman, the artist-in-residence and curator of the centre’s art gallery, said the exhibition’s title, Shift, has two meanings.

“One being the sort of shift of sediment from the shorelines into the water, the act of erosion. But it also is meant to represent our ‘shift’ in how we think about erosion. How we protect shorelines is changing, and how we learn about that information is changing as well.

“Like with this exhibition, you’re not just learning about it through the data collected through the UPEI Climate Lab, but through an exhibition by a local artist.”

UPEI researcher and drone pilot Andy MacDonald said he was “blown away” by the artwork.

“The imagery we get from the drones, I think it makes perfect sense to translate that into art,” MacDonald said. “Prince Edward Island is a very unique place. We have unique coastlines, and I think documenting that in an artistic way is great.”

MacDonald said the exhibit is also timely, as UPEI researchers continue to document the post-tropical storm’s damage to the island.

“Obviously Fiona was a dramatic event, and I think a big part of what art can do is express all sorts of different emotions,” he said. 

“I know a lot of people are feeling grief and sadness after Fiona and what it’s done, and art is a way to express that.”

Nancy Russell

Rilla Marshall’s art will be on display at the Climate Centre in St. Peter’s Bay until June 15, by appointment only.

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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