In the rush to go electric, do not end up in China’s control

It would be better to abandon technologies that use electricity stored in batteries to power cars and, instead, rely on fuel cells

Electric car
Tata Power Head of Business Development (EV) Virendra Goyal noted that development of an easy, accessible charging infrastructure is absolutely essential for large-scale adoption of EVs in the country | File Image

The world is racing to embrace electric mobility, dumping the internal combustion engine. In the process, it is also racing to give China a stranglehold over the automobile ecosystem, specifically through its control of cobalt, lithium and assorted rare earths that go into the motor-battery combination that powers electric vehicles.

It is vital that policymakers cease to identify electric mobility with Lithium-ion battery-driven vehicles and give fuel cells that run on hydrogen a prominent place in their plans.

General Motors in the US has decided to go all-electric by 2035. Only heavy vehicles will run on fuel cells, the rest would be fuelled by electricity stored in batteries. Ford has said it will go all-electric in Europe by 2030. Jaguar will make only electric vehicles by 2025, and even the Land Rover line will become electric by 2030. The German car giants all have plans to produce large numbers of cars that are powered by battery-stored electricity.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Chile, Argentina and Australia account for the bulk of cobalt and lithium, that is in terms of the country of origin.

However, most of the refining of these materials is done by Chinese companies in China. And China is aggressively mopping up mining rights for such battery- and electronics-related minerals, including rare earths. Neodymium and dysprosium are two rare earth elements used in liberal quantities in the permanent magnets of electric cars that run on conventional induction motors.

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The government of Greenland was toppled earlier this week, thanks to a controversy over mining of rare earths in an eco-sensitive area of the island. The mining rights are with an Australian company in which a Chinese company is the dominant shareholder.

As the US flexes its Information technology muscles to deny Chinese producers the ability to manufacture sophisticated microprocessors and other gear, China is gearing up to restrict trade in rare earths. China itself has large deposits of rare earths and has cornered rare earth supplies around the world, and is already the world’s largest refiner of such materials.

Permanent magnets are a vital part of the motors in electric vehicles and windmills. Neodymium and dysprosium and are rare earth elements used in these permanent magnets and are in high demand. China controls the production and supply of these things.

India’s black sands in Kerala, Orissa and parts of Tamil Nadu do contain materials from which these can be extracted. Jharkhand and some hills in the Northeast also contain the minerals from which rare earths can be extracted, but these are not yet fully explored.

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Schoolkids in Kerala are taught that the mineral sands of Kerala contain monazite and ilmenite. But what these, in turn, contain is not paid much attention. Ilmenite, named after Ilmen, the name of a lake and a portion of the southern Urals in Russia, and a prolific deposit of the material to which it has given its name, is the most important source of titanium. Monazite contains thorium, vital fuel for India’s nuclear energy programme using fast-breeder reactors, as also traces of uranium. Monazite also contains dysprosium.

India’s known deposits of rare earths are only 3 million tonnes. China has 36 million tonnes, about 37% of the world’s deposits, but supplies 97% of the world’s rare earth elements.

For the world to rush headlong into electric cars that run on induction motors is to give China enormous leverage over the supply chain of these vehicles. There are two different strategies to loosen China’s stranglehold. One is to shift the motor used from induction motors to reluctance motors. Induction motors use permanent magnets, for which neodymium, doped with dysprosium, is used in plenty. Reluctance motors do not depend on permanent magnets, just need a magnetic field, produced by electricity.

Using reluctance motors only does away with dependence on rare earths used in permanent magnets. The chokehold China has established on supplies of cobalt, lithium and assorted other materials used in Li-ion batteries will remain unaddressed.

So, it would be even better to abandon technologies that use electricity stored in batteries to power cars and use, instead, rely on fuel cells. Fuel cells generate power, in most cases from hydrogen. So, a car or a truck running on fuel cells would have its tank filled with hydrogen, which would, in the series of cells stacked together, lose electrons while combining with oxygen from the air, to produce electricity to run a motor, preferably a reluctance motor, and water as exhaust.

Fuel cells have weight in their favour as well. When it comes to larger vehicles, the weight of the battery pack that would be required to power it would eat into the capacity that can be spared for cargo. Fuel cells would not face this problem.

Toyota in Japan and Hyundai in Korea are betting big on hydrogen-based fuel cells. Japan was planning to showcase its hydrogen-powered vehicle at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But this joined the best-laid plans of mice and men that went coughing and wheezing into the medical waste bin of pandemic-struck history.

Hydrogen can also be used like natural gas and directly burnt, inside a gas turbine or an internal combustion engine. If the burning is in the air, some oxides of nitrogen might also be formed, and these are also greenhouse gases, like methane and carbon dioxide. If hydrogen is burned with pure oxygen, only water will come out, apart from heat, the useful part.

But the question is how to obtain large supplies of hydrogen. The simplest method is steam reforming, in which high-temperature steam is mixed with natural gas. Various experiments are being carried out around the world to produce energy-efficient hydrogen.

Indian Oil Corporation is already producing hydrogen and blending it with Compressed Natural Gas, to fuel buses in Delhi. Hydrolysing water is another method. If the electricity that is used to split water is derived from renewables, the hydrogen is itself called green hydrogen. That derived from hydrocarbons is called grey hydrogen. Grey hydrogen, when complemented with carbon capture and storage, becomes blue hydrogen.

For India, the ideal solution would be to convert coal into natural gas, and split natural gas, which comprises one carbon atom with four atoms of hydrogen, into carbon and hydrogen. Carbon, as carbon fiber or graphene, is a valuable material. Some fancy research in this direction is called for.

IIT-Delhi recently reported a low-cost, chemical route to hydrolyse water and generate hydrogen. Many more such projects must be funded. The Department of Science and Technology, as well as private foundations, could fund startups to come up with new technologies to produce hydrogen at low cost.

Going green is not about embracing the latest fashion in the west. Designing towns to minimise commutes and designing efficient public transport to minimise individualised modes of transport are the foremost challenges in combating climate change.

Choice of what kind of individual transport, whether battery-driven cars or those that run on hydrogen fuel cells is secondary. But the secondary challenge also has optimal and sub-optimal solutions. And we should not choose one that gives China an additional form of leverage over our lives.