Electric Car Batteries Are Going to Need a Lot of Nickel

There is a real environmental cost to this.

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Mining siltation in the Philippines
Mining siltation in the Philippines.

Jacob Maentz/ Getty Images

Nickel has been in the news, ever since Elon Musk called for more production in a post-earnings phone call in July, saying “Tesla will give you a giant contract for a long period of time if you mine nickel efficiently and in an environmentally sensitive way.” Nickel is a key component in batteries; Tesla buys nickel-cobalt-manganese (NCM) from LG in South Korea and nickel-cobalt-aluminum (NCA) from Panasonic.

Only 5% of the world's nickel goes into batteries now; the rest goes into making stainless steel. But this is going to change as more companies start producing electric cars and pickups. According to Zach Shahan of CleanTechnica, Ford's F150 electric pickup will use NCM batteries that are 90% nickel.

And since there are all these range wars and acceleration wars and truck size wars, all those batteries are going to get bigger. A Tesla Model 3 has a 75 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery while a Rivian pickup is available with up to 180kWh, over twice the size, and therefore probably over twice the nickel and all the rare earth elements and lithium that are the other stuff in batteries.

A March 2012 photo of an open cut nickel laterite mine near Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi province, Indonesia.
A March 2012 photo of an open cut nickel laterite mine near Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi province, Indonesia. Photography by Mangiwau / Getty Images

The problem is that unfortunately for Elon, nickel is not usually mined in an environmentally sensitive way. Henry Sanderson writes in the Financial Times that demand for nickel could rise sixfold by 2030 and that nickel mining can get messy.

"Analysts predict that Indonesia will account for almost all of the growth in nickel supplies over the next decade, overwhelming output from new mines in Canada and Australia. But a number of Chinese-backed projects in the country plan to dump mine waste containing metals such as iron into the sea, in an area renowned for its unique coral reefs and turtles. 'It could undermine the entire proposition of trying to sell a consumer a product that is environmentally friendly, if you have this back story,' said Steven Brown, a Jakarta-based consultant and former employee at nickel miner Vale."

The rock contains only about one percent nickel, so it generates a lot of waste, and when it is dumped in the ocean, it spreads in suspension over a large area, including the beaches on other islands.

Batteries are consistently getting better, with greater power densities, lower costs, and fewer problematic metals like cobalt. Elon Musk is having a "battery day" in September where he will probably announce yet another technological breakthrough. According to Reuters, Tesla is also working on the recovery of all of these elements through recycling, "as well as new 'second life' applications of electric vehicle batteries in grid storage systems"

But we keep coming up against the huge numbers being thrown around for electric vehicle production. Zach Shahan asks "How many electric vehicles (EVs) could Ford produce if demand was sky high? It appears that 300,000 by 2023 is the limit according to current plans (across all electric models), but that is not 100% certain."

And that's just Ford. Jason Hickel wrote in his new book "Less is More":

"In 2019, a group of leading British scientists submitted a letter to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change outlining their concerns about the ecological impact of electric cars.19 They agree, of course, that we need to end the sale and use of combustion engines and switch to electric vehicles as quickly as possible. But they pointed out that replacing the world’s projected fleet of 2 billion vehicles is going to require an explosive increase in mining: global annual extraction of neodymium and dysprosium will go up by another 70%, annual extraction of copper will more than double, and cobalt will need to increase by a factor of almost four – all for the entire period between now and 2050. We need to switch to electric cars, yes; but ultimately we need to radically reduce the number of cars we use."

It's probably not going to be as bad as Hickel suggests; they are already making cobalt-free batteries, and their energy density will continue to rise. But there is also the need for all the electricity to charge them, more turbines and solar panels and batteries, all requiring more mining. But don't worry, it won't likely be in your backyard. Hickel writes:

"It’s important to keep in mind that most of the key materials for the energy transition are located in the global South. Parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia are likely to become the target of a new scramble for resources, and some countries may become victims of new forms of colonisation. It happened in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the hunt for gold and silver from South America."

None of this even mentions the embodied carbon of the plain old steel and aluminum that the car bodies are made of. Much will be recycled from the internal-combustion-engine powered cars that come off the roads, but we are still talking vast numbers.

big nickel postcard
Big Nickel Postcard.  old postcard

Many Canadians will remember what Sudbury was like once. "As mining, stripping, sintering, and smelting operations increased with world demand for metals, Sudbury’s landscape began to look like a barren moonscape. The mining and processing of sulfide minerals released sulfur that contaminated and acidified soils." When American astronauts trained there in the early 70s, it was said it was because it resembled the moon. (They were there because it was a mineral-rich meteor crater, but we can't let that get in the way of a good story.) It took 30 years, billions of dollars in abatement technology, and two million trees to restore it.

Now all this mining is happening far away, and I doubt they are being so careful about clean production or restoration. Elon Musk wants his nickel mining to be environmentally sensitive, but he also wants his nickel efficient and cheap.

It becomes very hard to consider electric cars "clean" when you add up what goes into them, especially when we are getting all these monster Rivians and F150s and Hummers that are twice as big as they need to be.