Trading Foreign Oil For Foreign Electric Car Parts?

A rush to build electric cars could also mean a rush to get minerals that are produced in unstable parts of the world. Lithium-ion batteries require large amounts of cobalt, which comes primarily from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, Tibet and Siberia. Easing dependence on foreign oil could mean increasing dependence on foreign minerals — from even less reliable trading partners than the Persian Gulf states.

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And you heard him say that car makers are betting heavily on just a single technology: lithium-ion batteries. That gamble could come back to haunt them, as NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: One compelling reason to reduce our use of oil is we are currently heavily dependent on imports from the Persian Gulf and other less-than-friendly parts of the world. But Irving Mintzer, an economist, worries that the rush to new electric-car technologies could leave us dependent on other not-so-friendly parts of the world for critical materials. For example, lithium-ion batteries these days contain a lot of cobalt.

Dr. IRVING MINTZER (Senior Research Fellow, Center for Global Change, University of Maryland-College Park): The largest resources of cobalt, the ones that could be expanded most rapidly, are in the northeast Shaba region of the Congo, the site of 10-year civil war that's killed about five and a half million people, on the Tibetan plateau in China and in parts of Eastern Siberia.

HARRIS: Does that make you uncomfortable?

Mr. MINTZER: It worries me a great deal, because, first of all, the regimes in the areas that have the capability to expand production to this level are not all friendly to United States. And in many cases, as in the Congo, the occupational health and safety protections for workers in these mines is extraordinarily poor.

HARRIS: Now, you can make lithium-ion batteries without cobalt. Batteries for Chevy's all-electric Volt car, for example, won't depend on that element, Mintzer says.

Mr. MINTZER: These battery technologies, however, are little less mature. They appear to have bigger challenges going to large-scale production.

HARRIS: They may cost more, and their performance and longevity isn't as well road-tested as the cobalt-containing batteries in our laptops and cell phones. Mintzer has written a chapter about batteries for an upcoming Brookings Institution book on electric cars. It is not just cobalt that worries him; it's also the source of lithium itself.

Mr. MINTZER: There's a lot of lithium production in Bolivia and a potential to be expanded dramatically. There's also a significant lithium production in China in - again, in the Tibetan region of Southwest China.

HARRIS: Depending upon how fast demand rises for lithium car batteries, there could be supply issues there as well. A cautionary tale comes from the story of the element neodymium, which is used in those incredibly useful, rare earth magnets.

Mr. MINTZER: You'll find them in virtually every pair of ear buds attached to a teenager in the United States that allow iPods to walk down our streets.

HARRIS: Neodymium is also critical in hybrid automobiles, not in the batteries, but in the engines and braking systems. Now, 95 percent of neodymium comes from China, and last year, demand within China shot way up.

Mr. MINTZER: So, the Chinese cut off exports, which caused a modest amount of indigestion in countries like Japan and the United States, where auto production of hybrid vehicles was looking increasingly promising.

HARRIS: Mintzer says the lesson here is not that we should abandon lithium batteries, but that we need to be better prepared to switch to alternatives if the need arises. And unfortunately, the federal government and industry have focused a huge percentage of battery research solely on lithium-ion technology.

Mr. MINTZER: My suggestion is that we give up our desire to pick a single winner in the battery field and begin to look at what the range of possibilities are.

HARRIS: Now, there is a small and not entirely enthusiastic effort globally to look for alternatives.

Dr. PATRICK T. MOSELEY (President, Advanced Lead-Acid Battery Consortium): I'd be very surprised if something totally radical emerged at this stage.

HARRIS: Patrick Moseley is president of the Advanced Lead-Acid Battery Consortium. Its 50-member companies are mostly trying to refine the 104-year-old technology that's under almost every hood today. And Moseley says lithium isn't the only game in town. They've developed a lead battery that will work in a hybrid car and is $700 to $800 cheaper than the nickel metal-hydroid batteries used in hybrids today.

Mr. MOSELEY: And when you talked to engineers in the automobile industry who strive naturally to save a cent here and a cent there, $7 or $800 is a lot.

HARRIS: But lead probably won't work in plug-in electric cars. Those cars need a lot more batteries than hybrids, and lead is, well, heavy as lead. So, Moseley says some companies are at least poking around with more out-there technologies, like zinc-air, sodium nickel chloride, and other exotic chemistries.

Mr. MOSELEY: I think it's probably a wise government that pursues more than one line of research.

HARRIS: The question now is whether that new technology will be available fast enough if the lithium-ion juggernaut runs into some sort of trouble. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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