Elon Musk, and by association Tesla, are well-known across the world. But do you know what is the major product developed by Tesla which has made Musk one of the richest people in the world? It’s batteries for energy vehicles (EVs), the demand for which is expected to increase exponentially as awareness about climate and ESG risks enable governments and people to move towards a clean-air future. This industry is also offering new and exciting opportunities for heavy steel fabrication companies and stamping manufacturers to produce quality, lightweight components. As battery electric vehicles (BEVs) gain market share, manufacturers will need to address issues with mineral supply chains and vehicle curb weight.
Considerations with regard to BEVs
- Adequate Range – As BEVs migrate from novel vehicles to niche vehicles, the industry needs to ensure the BEVs have adequate range, especially since BEV charging infrastructure is in its infancy. Currently, BEV manufacturers are using lightweight materials, but the batteries are heavy.
- Battery Capacity – Production improvements over the past 10 years have led to a dramatic reduction in the cost per kilowatt-hour for lithium-ion batteries. This enables manufacturers to add greater battery capacity without negatively influencing vehicle costs.
- Bloated weight – Adding battery capacity can’t fully compensate for bloated weight. Battery researchers agree that future improvements in battery technologies will lead to marginal cost improvements. To achieve acceptable range, manufacturers need to work on reducing the curb weight of current BEVs by leveraging fabrication types such as pipe fabrication. For instance, GM’s Hummer three-motor version has an estimated curb weight of 10,000 to 14,000 lbs. Its 200-kwH battery capacity is twice that of Tesla’s, but with lesser range. Reducing curb weight to gain acceptable range will need to be an aggressive effort by OEMs, especially given the weight of batteries, safety equipment, and consumer demand for entertainment and comfort amenities.
- Minerals cost – As BEV sales become a more significant market segment, costs of essential minerals will increase both because of supply and demand and because increased demand will further expose issues in the mineral supply chain.
Demand drivers for light-weight components
The issues that will drive a push for even lighter weight components include the following: –
- Lithium mining environmental impact – Steel fabrication has many applications in mining and lithium mining uses tremendous amounts of water—an estimated 500,000 gallons per ton of lithium. In Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, where half the world’s lithium reserves are estimated to be located, the water usage is negatively affecting the nearby agricultural industry. Also, poisons leach off from the evaporation ponds and are known to kill downstream fish populations.
- Human rights issues in cobalt and element extraction – Cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is known for abusive labor practices and child labor.
- Political relationships – Energy is a strong economic and political motivator. As minerals like lithium, cobalt, and nickel become major drivers in transportation energy, unstable political relationships will have an effect. China is dominant in both global mineral extraction and lithium-ion battery production. The U.S. political relationship with an increasingly aggressive Chinese government may lead to market instability.
- Vulnerable supply chains – As energy supply chains change in their basic character, the structural steel fabrication industry must act to ensure that supply and transportation are robust enough to support a growing market.
Firms pertaining to stamping and supply of sheet metal components have been presented with an opportunity to address BEV range by replacing with lightweight components. Companies need to start thinking beyond the design of traditional gasoline-run vehicles and look to make BEVs light and fast by making full use of sheet metal fabrication techniques and products. As discussed above, there are many considerations and issues in this regard, however BEV companies need to strike the iron when it’s hot!