By on September 1, 2020

Electric vehicle manufacturers are already struggling to maintain supply lines as demand for batteries increases in practically every industry in existence. Automakers have recently begun branching out to secure the raw materials necessary for their production while also trying to cozy up to battery suppliers who already know they have them over a barrel. Some, like Tesla, have even built their own facilities for battery production.

In August, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that the automaker would offer favorable deals to companies that could mine nickel in an ecologically friendly manner and help ensure it has an adequate supply of the metal for batteries. But there’s a problem: pretty much every automaker wants access to nickel and — much like cobalt  there are often serious implications regarding how it’s procured. As demand continues to grow, industry players will become increasingly reliant on regions lacking rigid environmental safeguards.

Global demand for nickel is estimated to increase six-fold by 2030, according to a recent analysis from the Financial Times. That’s great news for miners, especially considering the material presently costs $15,320 per metric ton. But it needs to be refined before being fit for battery production, and that creates massive amounts of waste. Most sources of ore have extremely low concentrations of nickel.

From FT:

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.

That presents a problem for carmakers such as Tesla and Volkswagen, which have pledged to soften the environmental impact of their batteries. “At some point it will happen where they can’t avoid Indonesian nickel,” said Mr Brown.

He went on to suggest that Indonesian nickel projects alone would create around 50 million metric tons of waste per year if the announced programs in North Maluku and Central Sulawesi areas are enacted. While some of the associated companies claim they have a plan to ensure waste is sent directly to the deepest parts of the sea to avoid contaminating coral reefs, others seem content to dump into the ocean and let the chips fall where they may. A few (mainly Western-owned) companies actually refuse to dump into open waters and have elected to store waste in dammed-off areas or underground. Yet the global status quo allegedly has most mining waste going into the nearest waterway because it’s substantially cheaper. And that’s to say nothing of the massive amount of energy (primarily stemming form fossil fuels) required to mine the ore and then refine it into a more useful substance.

Alex Mojon, an environmental consultant from the Swiss Association for Quality and Environmental Management tasked by the provincial government in Madang to investigate a mishap from 2019 at the Chinese and Canadian-owned Ramu nickel and cobalt processing plant in Papua New Guinea, reported harmful particles remained suspended in seawater rather than sinking to the bottom. This allows currents to carry them hundreds of miles to the beaches of the archipelago islands.

Bursting the green bubble is a favorite pastime at The Truth About Cars. While we’re just as worried about the environment as any rational individual, the push into green tech has largely been a blind one. The increasingly popular assumption that the world’s energy and pollution problems would end if we could just swap over to electric vehicles has always seemed slightly misguided. It isn’t that we shouldn’t seek alternatives to our dependency on fossil fuels; we absolutely should. It’s that there doesn’t seem to be much call for extending the same critical assessments toward “eco-friendly” solutions we routinely use against the oil industry.

We probably need to look at this from all angles and bring in the concept of conservation a bit more often, as it’s the only guaranteed method of minimizing pollution and material waste.

[Image: Putu Artana/Shutterstock]

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43 Comments on “Report: Mass Nickel Mining Probably Won’t Be Great for the Environment...”


  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    If we mined dimes instead of nickels, we could double our profits.

    • 0 avatar
      Jon

      Like

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      All our dimes come from Canada. The cupro-nickel on the outside, copper on the inside coin blanks are made in Canada, where the largest nickel deposits in North America are. The Mint just stamps them.

      There’s no need to go elsewhere for nickel, Canada has plenty. If mining it is kind of dirty, that’s Canada’s problem. If the Canadians clean it up though, the cost to mint American coins will go up. Then the Treasury will have to make coins out of other metals, maybe a copper/zinc alloy.

      Meanwhile if you own an electric car in California, better have your own Honda generator to recharge the batteries during the blackouts. Maybe buy a generator in other states too – Cali is a bellweather, and blackouts could sweep the country in a few years.

  • avatar
    Matt51

    Electric cars are a religion, not a technology. Just as man made global warming is the religion of the Warmists.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      “Electric cars are a religion, ”

      Putting your foot to the floor in a performance EV is in fact a religious experience and I highly recommend it. Praise the torque brothers and sisters! Praise the torque! Yes, I worship at the lithium altar.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Blah.
      Blah.
      Blah.

    • 0 avatar
      shipping96

      Religious beliefs duffer from science in that they are in a constant loop:

      Make an observation.
      Ask a question.
      Form a hypothesis, or testable explanation.
      Make a prediction based on the hypothesis.
      Test the prediction.
      Iterate: use the results to make new hypotheses or predictions.

    • 0 avatar

      For religion electric cars are too effective.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Foley

      I still believe in the scientific method as the best way to learn what we don’t know. But my fellow Matt is not wrong, because if your research leads you to a conclusion that is not politically expedient, you will be cast out as a heretic. “Science!!!” has become a religion for atheists.

      Which statement of heresy will make you an outcast today?
      “Jesus of Nazareth was just a carpenter with delusions of grandeur.”
      “The Earth is warming, but nowhere near as fast as the alarmists claim, and their apocalyptic predictions will never come to pass.”

  • avatar
    Cicero

    To the environmentally-illiterate cohort that thinks electricity is made by the wall socket, the fact that batteries are full of metal should come as a real shocker.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      And how much nickel is in ICE cars? Both aluminum and cast iron blocks use it. It may be in other parts as well. Then again, there was that nickel tanker that went down in Mauritius. Oh wait, my bad, that was oil. That seemed to kill a few fish. Haven’t seen many fish kills in the news from nickel.

      • 0 avatar
        Old_WRX

        “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.”

        That ought to do it.

        • 0 avatar
          Matt Posky

          Pretty much all forms of industrial production are associated with environmental risk. Nickel is also required to manufacture stainless steel. The issue is how much more mining will be done after we ramp up battery production and how responsibly it’s being handled, not that sourcing the material has suddenly become bad.

        • 0 avatar
          Lou_BC

          @Old_WRX – there are studies that show iron shavings dropped into the ocean causes algae blooms which sequester CO2.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      I’m positive that the green crowd will not see the negatives associated with that mining!

      They won’t be shocked by the truth, which is kinda revolting!

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Aren’t the newer Lithium batteries made out of…..Lithium?

    Nickel was extensively used, and still used in the applications which require it, for the Nickel-Cadmium and Nickel-Metal Hydride batteries.

    My 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid used Ni-MHi batteries, but my understanding is that all new electric or hybrid vehicles have moved to Lithium based chemistries.

    Before someone points out, I know that there are Lithium-Nickel-Manganese and Lithium-Nickel-Cobalt batteries, but those don’t offer the performance characteristics of the Lithium-Iron-Phosphate which the industry covets.

    That is my understanding, if someone has additional or updated information, I would like to know.

    • 0 avatar
      DedBull

      For the batteries in its vehicles, Tesla uses Nickel Cobalt Aluminum Oxide (NCA) and Dahn said that they are also working on this chemistry. Tesla and Panasonic are planning to start production of battery cells for vehicles, starting with the Model 3, at Gigafactory 1 by June 2017.

      Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (NMC) battery cells, which Tesla uses for its stationary storage products (Powerwall and Powerpack), and the first cell production at Gigafactory 1 was for those products.

      Source: https://electrek.co/2017/05/09/tesla-battery-lifetime-double/

  • avatar
    Tele Vision

    It still doesn’t matter what the battery is made up of: EVs are just shjtting further upstream than are ICE cars – and seem to enjoy an attendant ‘green credibility’ for reasons beyond me. I love the torque curves, though.

    • 0 avatar
      Imagefont

      No! They’re all going to be powered by windmills and solar cells and stationary bicycles and treadmills in health clubs. And there will be storage batteries. You know, more batteries. Batteries charging batteries! It’s all figured out.
      Gold mines are interesting places. Blast to break he rock, use shovels and massive trucks to transport the rock to crushers. The crushers break the rock down to smaller and smaller pieces in stages – primary, secondary, tertiary. Now you have rocks no larger than about 1/2” and smaller. Then mix it with lime, then washer after some time, then build it up into virtual mountains and leak it with a weak cyanide solution. And for every 2 to 10 tons of rock (sometimes more) you get one ounce of gold and some silver that really just a byproduct. It’s just lovely. Check out the Kennecott Rio Tinto copper (mostly copper) mine outside of Salt Lake City. Use Googles Earth. It’s over a hundred years old and just getting bigger.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        “No! They’re all going to be powered by windmills and solar cells and stationary bicycles and treadmills in health clubs.”

        I make most of my money now from fossil fuel production (mostly natural gas out of the Permian Basin) so I keep a close eye on this stuff. It’s my competition. I’m in the process of diversifying, but I’m getting concerned and stepping up the pace.

        The reality is that renewables are in fact growing and cost effective. Look what’s happening in Australia:

        https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/01/influx-of-renewables-sees-coal-power-plants-run-well-below-capacity-increasing-chance-of-closures

        battery storage: https://www.powermag.com/worlds-largest-for-now-battery-storage-project-online-in-california/

        Gravity Storage: https://newatlas.com/energy/gravitricity-gravity-renewable-energy-storage-system/

        A friend of mine has one of these, a natural gas fed solid oxide fuel cell, and he’s saving a ton of money on power: https://www.bloomenergy.com/

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      @Tele Vision: There is such a thing as efficiencies of scale. This is why we don’t power cities with portable generators.

      It’s a cheap, worn claim to say that EVs “just push the pollution upstream”, but it’s mathematically deceptive and inaccurate.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Want to know where the USA got and continues to get the majority of its nickel. uranium (and cobalt)? Canada. Also 49% of petroleum imported into the USA comes from Canada versus 6% from Saudi Arabia.

    Unfortunately both INCO and Falconbridge which were the world’s largest producers of nickel throughout the 20th century are no longer Canadian owned/controlled. INCO was purchased by Vale, a Brazilian based company and Falconbridge is now part of Glencore a British company.

    Additionally the uranium required for most of the USA’s nuclear weapons was/is mined in Canada. Historically the Denison Mine in Elliot Lake which has since closed.

    So if the current administration in the White House does wish to impose imports on Canadian products, it is exposing itself to having to depend on overseas suppliers for many required raw materials.

    Unfortunately as noted. this type of mining created extensive health and ecological concerns. Sudbury was used by NASA as its slag heaps/waste areas most resembled the moonscape.

    From the Encyclopedia Canadiana:
    ‘By 1950, Inco controlled almost 90 per cent of world nickel production outside the communist states. In the subsequent decades, the company retained its leading position in the nickel market, in addition to its significant market shares in copper, precious metals and cobalt. Through its subsidiaries Inco Alloys International and Inco Engineered Products Limited, Inco additionally became the world’s largest supplier of wrought nickel alloys and a leading manufacturer of specialized forged components made from alloy materials.’

  • avatar
    Rocket

    Yes, but by all means let’s push EV’s. And I don’t mean just promote them as being environmental saviors … let’s force taxpayers subsidize the purchase of EV’s to artificially stimulate demand. So what if battery supplies are a known problem and battery production is anything but green.

    Look, I know EV’s are a part of our future, but the goals need to be reasonable, attainable and logical. Customers wishing to be pioneers can foot the bill all on their own. Tech advancements will get us there if it’s a viable solution.

  • avatar
    ajla

    So from an end-to-end environmental perspective from creation to being scrapped at 15 years and 200K miles which of these has the lowest environmental impact?
    0. Mitsubishi Mirage
    1. Corolla Hybrid
    2. Prius Prime (always using battery miles first)
    3. Chevy Bolt

    Is that not something really known? Or is it a “depends on a lot” answer?

    • 0 avatar
      ahintofpepperjack

      Likely the Mirage. It’s the lightest (meaning the least physical materials used) and the Mirage with the manual transmission gets mileage similar to the corolla hybrid.

  • avatar
    mcs

    Lots of good statistics on nickel from their lobbying group. For example, 70% of nickel goes to stainless steel production, then comes nickel alloys and steel alloys. Finally, you get to current battery production which is only 5%.

    Basically, it sounds like a lot of nickel might be going into fossil fuel cars as well. So, do those get eliminated? I bet those companies aren’t as careful as some of the battery makers. This article is just pure anti-ev propaganda because it conveniently doesn’t mention that ICE vehicles are involved as well. It’s not just EVs. The high strength steel used in ICE cars contains nickel so the same issues exist. It would have been a good article if it was honest about the use of nickel in all vehicles. It’s time I had a conversation with TTAC’s new ownership.

    https://www.nickelinstitute.org/about-nickel

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      I’ve already noted that nickel goes into stainless steel production in the comments. Claiming this is anti-ev propaganda is ludicrous. The demand for nickel is about to go through the roof (along with a bunch of other hard-to-get materials) and not just because of EVs. We look critically at oil drilling, the least we could do is extend the same level of care toward battery mining practices.

    • 0 avatar
      jkross22

      I wouldn’t discount the nickel lobby wholesale, but let’s say that any lobbying group should be taken with a vat of salt. Their job is to present 1 side of an argument.

      It’s the same reason why the military does not rely solely on single source intelligence. Too easy for preventable mistakes to occur.

    • 0 avatar
      RHD

      Five-cent coins could be made from recycled aluminum cans.
      We can melt down the nickels and make other stuff out of them.

  • avatar
    ThomasSchiffer

    Am I wrong, but for me this is another argument for synthetic fuel production. Several companies are working on this process, using the CO2 in the air to produce synthetic Diesel and gasoline fuel. Last year I was listening to a podcast from a scientist in Austria who was heavily involved in this. He basically stated that any town around the world is capable of producing their own synthetic fuels by sourcing the CO2 in the air.

    The caveat is that this process requires a lot of energy, and thus will initially be expensive. Once the economies of scale factors comes into play, millions of people can remain mobile in their internal combustion engine-powered cars.

    At least this could be an interim solution until EVs become greener, practical (stable ranges, quick charging without lowering battery life and so forth) or until something better shows up.

    Count me in as one of the few people who feels that EVs are not the solution.

    For me, a car powered by an internal combustion engine is far more sustainable than any EV.

    • 0 avatar
      RHD

      The power to make this happen can come from solar cells.
      We can pave Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah with solar cells and create fuel, provide for the electrical needs of the entire country, quit sending our money to Saudi Arabia, and clean up the air, bing, bang, boom.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Synthetic fuel could be a better more Eco-friendly alternative. I am not opposed to EVs just don’t want one until battery technology gets better and cheaper and infrastructure to support EVs gets more widespread. EVs maybe as a commuter vehicle or for short trips but with telework I mostly work at home which makes it less expensive to keep my existing low mileage vehicles than to buy a new EV.

  • avatar
    Peter Gazis

    FAKE NEWS

    Over its lifetime the average ICE powered vehicle will use about 8,000 gallons of gas. EVs only use a couple of pounds of Nickel, and at the end of the vehicle’s life, it will be recycled.

  • avatar
    Jerome10

    Been saying this for years….

    People think gasoline is so awful. Maybe in air pollution I could accept that. But I also maintain it is so common because it is overall the best balance of power, reliability, pollution, fueling costs, production efficiencies, safety, raw material procurement etc.

    People seem to think if we all drive battery powered cars the world will be saved.

    Nobody seems to think about how you make the electricity for the car (coal, natural gas, dams that kill salmon etc). Or the horrific mining practices and awful pollution created to mine the heavy metals needed to make batteries. What about battery disposal at end of life?

    I’m not saying EVs are garbage. I actually quite like them. Just don’t think you’re green Jesus if you drive one.

    There is ALWAYS a cost.

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    Since CO2 is the bad molecule of the day, how much is produced mining the ore? Then how much is produced refining the ore?

    Just curious.

  • avatar
    Jeff Weimer

    My first-gen Cruze is still serving me well, and it simply meets my needs and exceeds my expectations.

    But I don’t have a good feeling about any GM product developed post-Lutz.

  • avatar
    Yankee

    Amazing the kind of passionate reactions people have both for and against electric cars. It’s not an either/or question. Baring some quantum leap in technology (e.g., a battery the size and weight of a laptop powering a truck for equivalent distance as gas tanks), it’s likely none of us here will live in a world without internal combustion cars in our lifetime. Those thinking EVs are the answer to everything sound like the folks who really thought they were getting a flying car because they read one of the many Popular Mechanics articles on it. On the flip side, those who fear EVs as some sort of ion-exchanging antichrist sound like the old mechanics I knew who predicted computers would ruin cars when they first started putting them into popular use in the 80s. Relax folks. It’s a technology like any other, and one that is worthy of consideration of costs and benefits like this article notes, and the mostly thoughtful and informed discussion like that occurring here.

  • avatar
    HotPotato

    So let me get this straight: VW and Tesla have said they will NOT buy this Indonesian nickel that is of concern, and your argument is: but what if they have to?

    Jesus wept, Posky. Your bad-faith pseduo-concern has become a parody of itself.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Here is a prime example of why, although I support tariffs in theory, they need to be implemented as part of a long term strategic initiative. And not just by someone with poor impulse control. Unless of course he is a ‘Manchurian Candidate’.

    From an article published by Canada Press(CP):
    “Canada and its aluminum industry are essential contributors to the arsenal of democracy.”

    Tom Dobbins, president of the U.S. Aluminum Association, which opposed the tariff decision said U.S. smelters are only capable of meeting about one-third of domestic demand, he added.

    “We’re going to have to import our primary aluminum from somewhere and the alternatives to Canada are Russia, the Middle East and China. I do not have to explain to this audience why, for geopolitical reasons, these are poor alternatives.”

    The push for tariffs has prompted questions about whether Glencore Plc, a Swiss producer with a 47 per cent stake in Century, is trying to position itself to sell Russian-made aluminum in the U.S. Glencore is spending $16.3 billion over the next five years on up to 6.9 million tonnes of the metal from Rusal, the second-largest aluminum producer in the world.

    Robert DeFrancesco, a trade lawyer and lobbyist in Washington, D.C., went to bat for Century Aluminum and Magnitude 7 Metals, the two solitary American producers that convinced U.S. trade ambassador Robert Lighthizer and President Donald Trump last month to impose a new 10-per-cent levy on exports from Canada.

    Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show imports from Canada declined 2.6 per cent from May to June, while official Canadian export data released Thursday shows a 19 per cent decline in exports of primary aluminum during the month of July, Dobbins said. And total U.S. import volumes were five per cent lower during the first six months of 2020 than in the same stretch of 2017, the last full year without tariffs.

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