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Can the US Compete in and Win the Electric Vehicle Race?


Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash


 

2023 emerged as another landmark year for electric vehicles (EV), showcasing continued advancements in technology and adoption worldwide. China maintains its dominance in EV battery and car production, although its lead in sales and adoption have been challenged. By 2022, the EU has slightly surpassed China in EV sales, with Germany emerging as a frontrunner in the adoption within the EU. Innovations in battery design remain pivotal, propelling the evolution of EVs. Major automobile manufacturers remain steadfast in their commitment to revolutionizing transportation, prioritizing electric motors fueled by cutting-edge battery technologies over traditional internal combustion engines.



By Mark Kouri, 4/16/2024 (originally published May 24, 2021)

Déjà vu? A brief history of EVs

In 2008 Tesla introduced its Roadster. In 2020 Apple announced its plans to introduce a passenger car by 2024. With high-profile tech companies like Tesla and Apple drawing recent attention to the EV market, it may seem that EVs are the 21st-century development in the evolution of the automobile. However, this is not the first time that EVs have been serious contenders to combustion-powered vehicles. In fact, the first electric vehicles were developed early in the 19th century but were powered by non-rechargeable galvanic cells. These early electric carriages demonstrated potential but were not practical for transportation. Then in 1859, rechargeable batteries debuted, sparking new interest in the concept of electric vehicles as viable means of transportation. Electric vehicles took the forms of trolleys, streetcars, boats, and of course, automobiles[i]. Over the next three decades a string of inventors and chemists introduced various forms of EVs, and the famed German engineer behind the design of the iconic VW Beetle, Ferdinand Porsche, even produced the first hybrid car in 1899. Its gasoline engine powered electric motors that drove its front wheels. It turned out to be a popular model, selling 300 units. By the late 19th-century, EVs were popular and practical, especially among urban women[ii]. The brilliant inventor Thomas Edison promoted the development of electric vehicles and even collaborated with Henry Ford on the development of an EV model.


EVs Outnumbered Gasoline-Powered Cars… So, Where did They Go?

By 1900, 22% of the cars on roads in the United States were fueled by gasoline, while an amazing 38% ran on electricity. The other 40% were powered by familiar, reliable steam. Then in 1908, a disruptive innovator did something no one else had done before. Ford introduced his iconic gasoline-powered, assembly-line production Model T. Ford’s visionary production method made the Model T, with its interchangeable parts, both affordable and readily available. Ford’s assembly line could produce a car in 93 minutes. By 1927, and the end of the longest assembly line production run of a single model in history, Ford had produced about 15,000,000 cars. The gasoline-powered Model T was so successful that at one point, a majority of Americans owned one[iii]. It was Henry Ford who sealed the fate of EV adoption—or lack thereof—by the masses. The gasoline-powered automobile became ubiquitous, effectively sidelining electric vehicles for over a century to follow.


President Biden Promotes Made in America—Warns China is Winning the Race in EV Innovation

That brings us to today. Now over a hundred years later, the attention is again on Ford and electric vehicles. On Tuesday, May 18, 2021, President Biden delivered an impassioned speech in Dearborn, Michigan while visiting Ford’s new Rouge Electric Vehicle Center, a facility that builds Ford’s new electric F-150 pickup truck. President Biden said in his remarks, “The future of the auto industry is electric. There’s no turning back”.[iv] The president went on to say that China is leading the race, with more innovative technology than anyone else’s, especially in regard to producing batteries, a key component in electric vehicles. President Biden also mentioned Germany and Mexico as major players in EV battery production. It comes as no surprise that the president is emphasizing these points at the historic Rouge Complex since EVs are set to play a huge role in the American Jobs Plan—President Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure proposal, which includes a staggering $174 billion investment “to win the EV market”[v].


The Biden plan has broad implications for the emerging EV industry in the United States. If the bill passes through Congress rather unscathed, we could see a nationwide network of up to 500,000 plug-in stations across the country by 2030, and an all-electric federal fleet, including the U.S. Postal Service. According to the World Resources Institute, “The proposal also includes electrifying 50,000 transit vehicles and at least 20% of the school bus fleet (about 96,000 buses) through a new clean school bus program at the Environmental Protection Agency”[vi]. According to Energy.gov, “All-electric vehicles produce zero direct emissions, which specifically helps improve air quality in urban areas”.[vii]

Electrifying school buses, transit vehicles, USPS delivery vehicles, the federal fleet, as well as the family car or truck should result in cleaner and healthier air, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially over the lifespan of the EV. In practice it isn’t so cut and dry.


Not all EVs are Created Equal

There is great ambiguity concerning carbon emissions generated during the production of EV batteries, not to mention their charging during their lifespan. Approximately half of the carbon emissions associated with battery production come from generating the electricity used in the production of EV batteries. Batteries produced in regions using low-carbon methods to produce energy, such as nuclear or renewable energy, can substantially reduce battery production-related carbon emissions. France produces most of its energy from nuclear power, while Norway powers its industries with renewable hydroelectricity. Energy in Germany is sourced from fossil fuels, wind, nuclear, biofuels, and hydropower, in that order. China fuels its factories with coal, generating 53% of the world’s total coal-fired power in 2020, according to a Reuters study.[viii] China also produces 27% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. While the U.S. comes in second in greenhouse gas emission, it generates 60% of its energy from fossil fuels (40.3% from natural gas, 19.3% from coal), 20% from nuclear, and 20% from renewable sources[ix].


The battery is the heart of the EV. The Holy Grail of the EV market has been and continues to be cheap, quick-charging, long-range batteries. Until now the production of EV batteries has been centered in China, where smokestacks of coal-powered EV factories dump a steady stream of pollutants—smoke, soot, and greenhouse gasses—into the air as they churn out electric vehicles and EV batteries using rare minerals often sourced with little regard to their origin and the negative effects of their acquisition on the environment and the people who mine them.


Responsible manufacturers realize that the only practical way to ensure that raw materials are sourced responsibly and that manufacturing leaves the smallest footprint possible on the environment is to control both the supply chain and production processes. This drives innovation and the push to develop competitive, sustainable alternatives to cheap Chinese products. Responsible sourcing of raw materials and manufacturing outside of Asia won’t necessarily cost China its dominance over the raw materials supply-chain, nor force China to reduce its reliance on coal and oil to power its industry; however, manufacturing in Europe, the Americas, and the US can reduce reliance on China for some key components. This is now happening.


Can European Rivals Compete with Chinese Dominance?

Earlier this month, Elkem, a Norwegian company and a global provider of advanced materials, announced the establishment of Vianode, a new company, and brand dedicated to strategic growth opportunities for advanced EV battery materials. This includes the commissioning of an industrial scale pilot program for battery materials in Kristiansand, Norway[x]. Vianode is dedicated to the development and production of sustainable, high-quality active anode materials to meet the needs of the blooming international EV marketplace. France and Germany are jointly committed to investing in the EU’s production of EV batteries, but ramping up significant regional production to compete with dominant Chinese and hopeful American manufacturers will take years. 2020 was a great year for EVs in Europe. Sales more than doubled, surpassing China as the number one market. Approximately one out of eight plug-in cars sold is in Germany, but facing raw material limitations and a significantly higher cost base than its Asian rivals casts doubt on the continent’s ability to create a competitive domestic battery manufacturing industry. So, for the foreseeable future, and for many reasons, China will remain as the heavy-hitter in the EV battery manufacturing game. Chinese companies produce 80% of the world’s raw materials for advanced batteries. “Of the 136 lithium-ion battery plants in the pipeline to 2029, 101 are based in China”[xi]. China dominates the supply chain and processing of rare earth, lithium, nickel, cobalt, and graphite—nearly all the critical minerals required to produce advanced batteries.


When Will the American EV Market Catch Up?

Global sales of EVs surpassed 3 million in 2020. The EU bought 1,390,000 EVs, compared to 1,330,000 sold in China. The US lagged behind with 328,000 EVs sold. But US sales are expected to increase as the Biden administration lays out its aggressive EV strategy and infrastructure plan. In a recent survey, 71% of US drivers expressed interest in getting an electric vehicle, but 50% of those surveyed cited the lack of public charging stations as their main obstacle to entering the EV consumer market. This concern is certainly a motivating factor in the Biden plan to build 500,000 public EV charging stations by 2030.


Clean, Green, and Guilt-Free…Right?

It is true that an EV powered by coal generates less greenhouse gas emissions than a comparable sized vehicle equipped with a conventional internal combustion engine. China’s adoption of EVs has already resulted in a respectable 20% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in China[xii]. China’s expansion of electric vehicle and EV battery production has also resulted in lower prices for EVs and their batteries worldwide.


The move to go green is not the main reason for the blossoming EV industry. Concern for climate change is a factor driving the evolution of electric vehicles and transforming the automotive industry. But current practices employed in the acquisition of key raw materials used in the manufacturing of EV batteries at the heart of this potentially disruptive technology can be harmful to the environment, and the communities associated with extracting the minerals.

According to Jonathan Eckart, Global Battery Alliance Project Lead, “Producing an EV contributes, on average, twice as much to global warming potential and uses double the amount of energy than producing a combustion engine car”.[xiii] This is mainly because battery production requires lots of energy to access, extract, and exploit.


In addition, most of the raw materials used in the production of EV batteries are found in a few areas where environmental degradation or human rights abuses go largely ignored. South American mines are concentrated in a few countries in the so-called Lithium Triangle, which includes some of the driest places on earth, spanning parts of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. Lithium mining uses lots of water—extracting one ton of lithium requires about a million gallons. As a result of mining, water supplies can become contaminated, or may be depleted altogether, leaving areas uninhabitable[xiv].


Although some manufacturers are committed to replacing cobalt, this toxic mineral with a tenuous supply chain is still used in battery production. Its main source is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where political unrest, endemic corruption, the exploitation of child labor, and unsafe working conditions are all well-documented. It is an undisputed fact that cobalt extracted by children from militia-controlled, artisanal mines has found its way into the global supply chain from the DRC for many years[xv].


Apple, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla were among the companies sued by Congolese families in 2019 for “knowingly benefiting” from the use of children as young as six years old to mine cobalt in the DRC. Cobalt, the “blood diamond of batteries”[xvi], is the most expensive and conflicted material used in EV battery production, so eliminating the mineral from the supply chain, and replacing it with an element of less dubious pedigree is the socially responsible thing to do. Nickel has been nominated to serve as cobalt’s stand-in, but mining nickel comes with its own set of environmental compromises. Since nickel is typically mined from ores containing very little usable material, mining nickel produces lots of waste byproducts. The nickel supply chain is also dominated by China, so the search is on to find its replacement.


Is It Good Enough?

The hunt for viable alternatives is ongoing and research continues to show some promising possibilities. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are developing new cathodes and electrolytes using low-cost, readily available iron to replace the expensive metals, and a solid polymer electrolyte to replace traditional liquid electrolytes[xvii]. In 2019 materials scientist John Goodenough became the oldest Nobel laureate when he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for their work on lithium-ion batteries. In 2016 a team headed by Goodenough filed for a patent on a new glass-based battery that outperforms Li-ion batteries. According to the patent, the water solvated glass/amorphous solid ionic conductors battery can, “provide a safe, low-cost stationary battery capable of storing a large amount of electrical energy for feeding the grid or charging the battery or capacitor of an electric vehicle since the temperature range of operation of a stationary battery can be kept small through all seasons at little cost”[xviii].


With China in the Lead, How Can American Businesses Catch Up?

An EV is only as clean as the power used in its manufacturing and charging its battery over its lifespan. Coal-powered EV battery production and charging are dirtier than natural gas-powered batteries, but a renewable-powered or nuclear-powered EV is cleaner. Depending on where an EV battery is produced and charged, it may only be a dirty shade of green. Ironically, battery manufacturing and charging emissions can reduce or even negate the perceived positive impacts of EVs on climate change as battery prices fall and EV manufacturers begin including larger long-range batteries in their vehicles. Sourcing EV batteries from manufacturers that use low-emission energy in their manufacturing would be a good practice, but the demand for lower-priced goods continues to give China an advantage. This is where government intervention may have a place. President Biden’s Made in America executive order is on the right track. It gives preferential consideration in federal purchasing to companies that manufacture in the United States.


One such company is Florida-based Laser Photonics (LP). LP is a leading developer and manufacturer of industrial laser equipment. In a small industrial park in Orlando, a small team of scientists, engineers, and subject matter experts (SME) in laser physics, industrial design, software development, and manufacturing processes collaborate to create laser-based solutions for industrial applications. LP doesn’t build cars or batteries, but it does make high-powered laser equipment used on assembly lines in the automotive industry, aerospace, oil & gas, maritime maintenance, space exploration, defense, and more. LP recently debuted “CleanTech”, their broad line of energy-efficient, clean, and safe laser equipment designed to disrupt and displace hazardous chemical cleaning and abrasives blasting methods that have been entrenched in industry for over 150 years. This disruptive technology is proven, and LP has sold and delivered systems to Fortune 500 companies, all branches of the US military, to NASA, and private-sector space exploration companies. LP has even developed a CleanTech system specifically for EV battery production lines.


EV batteries are made up of cells comprised of thousands of lithium-ion cylinders. Each cylinder is connected to the next in a series circuit. Getting these connections right is critical to the functionality of the battery and the range of the EV on the road. Battery performance is impacted by the amount of surface area on the points where the cylinders are welded together. Defective connections can lead to a reduction in efficiency and performance, or failure altogether; so, it is critical when joining anodes and cathodes that the coatings be completely removed without damaging the thin foils they cover. LP has an elegant solution to address critical surface preparation applications in the EV battery production process. Their CleanTech MegaCenter can be equipped and configured to uniformly process the weld points of those thousands of cylinders in a production line environment. LP’s proprietary system uses clean, laser light to quickly remove coatings and contaminants while creating a specific microscopic 3D texture that increases the surface area of the battery weld points. The resulting product is a more efficient battery.


Can it be done?

American companies like Ford and Laser Photonics are fit for the American Jobs Plan. They lead innovation, provide good-paying jobs, and help meet the needs of growing domestic markets for EVs, industrial equipment for building infrastructure, and much more. Home-grown innovations like Ford’s F-150 EV, and LP’s CleanTech will certainly be required to beat China in the EV manufacturing game. With a Made in America mandate and government plan to expand infrastructure to encourage the adoption of EVs, there may actually be a chance of achieving the president’s goal. If implemented responsibly, it will be good for America, and good for the world. It is an ambitious, enormous, expensive plan managed by big government, and it has to get through the most divided Congress in decades.


If the Biden plan does pass, it could usher in an era that would redefine the automotive industry and our transportation system, ultimately replacing over 280 million motor vehicles in the US alone. That’s a lot of batteries requiring lots of raw materials. Without major advancements in technology, current supplies of cobalt, lithium and other raw materials will not be able to keep pace with the demand. That can have a dampening effect on the mass adoption of EVs, a major component of Biden’s vision for the future of transportation in America. Until viable replacements for the rare minerals used in EV battery production enter the supply chain, responsible and sustainable use, reuse, and recycling of existing supplies of raw materials will be necessary to increase supply chain efficiency.


Conclusions

There will always be demand for low-cost products from wherever skilled labor, raw materials, and energy are plentiful and cheap. In those regards, China has it all. In addition to low labor costs, abundant energy resources, and dominance over key raw materials, Chinese EV manufacturers benefit from state, regulatory, and financial support, including low taxes and duties, and competitive currency practices. China is hard to beat on price; but when it comes to innovation, quality control, protecting the environment, and safeguarding workers’ health and safety, building EVs and their batteries in the U.S. is the right choice.


American companies like Ford and LP already lead the way in innovation and job creation. Both play key roles in meeting the demand for domestic, high-quality, cost-effective, labor-friendly alternatives to offshore products. Like Henry Ford, its namesake, the Ford Motor Company builds cars that Americans want to drive. Products like their F-150 EV will drive innovation and will help to make EVs as ubiquitous as the F-150’s gasoline-powered predecessors. Likewise, Laser Photonics, a disruptive technology company, is displacing hazardous old manufacturing processes with safe, clean, and energy-efficient next-generation industrial laser equipment to help streamline production line processes. The $2 trillion Biden plan is ambitious. Transitioning our ground transportation system from fossil fuels to electricity won’t be easy. It will take disruptive innovators like Ford and LP to see it through to fruition.


 

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