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How recycling could make the UK a world leader in electric vehicles

leaf3The UK car industry is on edge, with the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders saying that Brexit uncertainty is threatening investments in Britain’s car industry. On top of this, there has been the long wait for the government’s Road to Zero strategy, which will set out how it proposes to reduce emissions from transport. The future of the sector seems to be in limbo, a situation that is unlikely to be attractive to any car manufacturers thinking of setting up shop in the UK.

So, what should change for the government to achieve its aim to “cement the UK’s position as a world leader in the low emission and electric vehicle industry”? It’s worth looking at what’s needed to realise this ambition, including one important element: cobalt.

Time for the UK to up its game on electric vehicles
The automotive industry is inevitably moving towards electric vehicles (EVs), with global demand growing from competitors like China, California and Germany. So far, the UK has remained somewhere in the middle of the pack.

As our domestic car industry might be heading into troubled waters, it’s time to up our game and reposition the UK to lead the electric vehicle revolution. To help create a strong domestic market for EVs and attract global car manufacturers to the UK, the government should bring forward the ban on sales of new diesel and petrol vehicles to 2030, set a mandate to sell a rising share of zero emissions vehicles in advance of the ban and support city clean air zones.

A guaranteed supply of cobalt
Guaranteed supplies of cobalt is another factor that would make the UK a more attractive place to build an EV factory. Cobalt is used in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries for EVs and stationary storage. Securing a domestic supply of this metal is important to the success of the UK’s car industry for two reasons.

First, we are currently 100 per cent reliant on cobalt imports. Domestic demand could reach 14 kilotonnes in 2030 (equivalent to around four per cent of the forecast global demand) and 19.6 kilotonnes in 2035. Scarcity of supply and volatile costs could hold back our EV industry, particularly in light of the recent tripling in the price of cobalt over two years.

Second, cobalt reserves are concentrated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where mining activities have been linked to human rights abuses and child labour. Rising public concern over the human and environmental costs of mining may expose the industry to reputational risks.

The good news is that, given the expected uptake of EVs, we could have our own reliable source of cobalt here in the UK by the 2030s. We’ve crunched the numbers and, if the government brought forward its ban on new diesel and petrol cars to 2030, recovering cobalt from batteries at their end of life could supply a quarter of the UK’s demand for cobalt in 2030, and nearly half in 2035.

How to make sure we don’t miss the opportunity
We need proper recovery infrastructure and supply chains to get this supply up and running. If we carry on as we are, this valuable resource will continue to be lost from the UK’s system or exported abroad. The Faraday Challenge is looking at developing the technologies needed to recover cobalt from batteries. But, as we have seen in other sectors like plastics and steel, the availability of recycling technologies alone doesn’t necessarily lead to domestic recovery. The government has to set the right framework to kickstart a UK market for recovered cobalt.

We suggest two main interventions to achieve this:

  • Set standards for recycled content in battery manufacturing. Doing this would stimulate investment in recycling infrastructure and reverse logistics to support domestic cobalt recovery. We estimate that, by 2035, end of life batteries could support between 42 and 91 new recycling plants, supplying nearly half the domestic demand for cobalt.
  • Use the power of public procurement. Central government and local councils manage nearly 75,000 vehicles and could opt to choose battery and vehicle manufacturers that use recovered content.

While questions around Brexit remain unresolved, the government could take a clear stand now on low carbon vehicles. It could attract EV manufacturers by ensuring a thriving domestic market and guaranteed access to vital supplies of cobalt that might be challenging to source from elsewhere.

This blog is the second in a series exploring the potential for secondary markets for the materials we studied in Completing the circle: creating effective UK markets for recovered resources.

[Image: Nissan Leaf courtesy of Cliff, via Flickr]


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