Chinese Interests Dominate The Rare Earth Metal Supply Chain

GMC Hummer EV Ultium Battery Pack General Motors Electric Vehicle
Hummer EV chassis with the current Ultium Battery pack. Image Via GM.

EVs require more minerals and materials than conventional vehicles, we know that, and we’ve known that for a while now. Besides the significant quantities required, those materials are sourced from a supply chain that’s largely dominated by Chinese entities. This means that as collective “Western” governments push electrified vehicles onto the populace through artificial incentivization or outright taxation, the demand and prices we pay for critical materials from China will ramp significantly, potentially funding more and more spy balloons.

Key minerals required in EV production are copper, nickel, cobalt, and lithium, among other Rare Earth minerals. Some of the issues facing these minerals will also affect combustion vehicles,  however, the lower quantities required per vehicle help spread the demand over a larger output.

According to the KGP Powertrain Outlook 2030-2040 forecast, a conventional combustion-powered car requires 33.8 kg of minerals for production, with most of this concentrated in copper and manganese. An EV requires 206.9 kg of minerals, more than six times the amount required for a combustion vehicle. EVs require more than double the amount of copper, along with significant quantities of lithium, cobalt, manganese, graphite, and nickel. You may think the trade-off between combusting hydrocarbons and mining for minerals is fair, but not only would you be wrong, but you would be insufferably ignorant.

Many copper mines currently operating are nearing peak output, with little in the way of reserves. Older mines are beginning to see a marked decline in ore quality. This is coupled with the high water requirements needed for the mining process.

Nickel is interesting because it’s also highly integral to the production of alloys including stainless steel, and cast iron. For example, a cast iron engine block can contain 15-30% nickel. However, most of the nickel currently available in the global supply chain is not high enough quality to be useful in the production of EV batteries, which require Class 1 nickel. The largest Class 1 nickel producer is Russia.

Most of the issues with cobalt are well-known by now. 70% of all global cobalt production is concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo and China. How’s that for energy independence? 90% of all cobalt produced is actually a byproduct of nickel and copper mining, meaning the three minerals are inextricably linked.

On the lithium front, some experts are predicting the world could face severe lithium shortages as early as 2025. Lithium mines require a huge lead time to develop, mines that became operational between 2010 and 2019 required an average of 16.5 years to develop. China accounts for 60% of global lithium production, and over 80% of the lithium hydroxide used for producing cathodes.

Additionally, lithium production is absolute murder on the water table, and more than 50% of all lithium mines are located in areas currently suffering from water shortages, coincidence? Similar concerns exist for rare earth elements, where the majority of the mining and processing is concentrated in China.

General Motors Ultium Battery Pack GM

Currently, the supply chain for EV batteries is concentrated in very few countries. China has an outright monopoly on lithium, cobalt, and graphite processing and refining capacity, coupled with three-quarters of all lithium-ion battery production capacity.

While 25% of the world’s EVs are assembled in Europe, it accounts for an insignificant amount of the mineral processing mix. Meanwhile, the United States accounts for just 10% of EV production and 7% of battery production capacity.

Sure things will change with the addition of new production facilities from American automakers, but that will never change the provenance of minerals required for EV production. Now you can turn around and yell about the extraction of oil from foreign countries is a problem, and you would be right if you chose to ignore all the homegrown oil production the United States is capable of generating or if you completely delete the Alberta oil sands from existence.

Instead of chasing the dragon to the unknown depths of depravity, isn’t it better to dance with the devil you know?


Written by Michael Accardi

Michael refuses to sit still, he's held multiple hands-on automotive jobs throughout his career. Along with being an investigative writer and accomplished photographer, Michael works for several motorsports organizations.

He was part of the Ford GT program at Multimatic, oversaw a fleet of Audi TCR race cars, has ziptied Lamborghini Super Trofeo cars back together, been over the wall in the Rolex 24, and worked in the cut-throat world of IndyCar.

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