10 June 2019

June 5 was World Environment Day - who noticed?

Given that the automobile, and other road transport vehicles, are constantly blamed for much of the airborne pollution and use of precious global resources such as oil, steel and aluminium, it was was hardly mentioned in the UK, even after all the energy - or noise - generated over the past few months by Extinction Rebellion and despite the fact that both English and Welsh governments have declared a Climate Emergency.

There have been warnings from scientists of the implications on resources such as lithium and cobalt, warnings that have been echoed in this column for some time.

For it is a matter of when, not if we shall move from combustion-engined to battery-electric vehicles, the current forecast is that we will have a really significant portion of the world’s car park being fully electric by 2050. Talking to Riversimple, makers of a lightweight hydrogen fuel cell car the Rasa (pictured above) made me realise the gravity of the raw material situation; China’s rapid response to technological change and consequent thirst for raw materials could see global shortages that would make the oil crises of the past look like hiccups in the supply chain. It has been forecast that if China builds all the EVs that it has been rumoured it will make in the next 18 months, it will use the world’s total supply of cobalt.

Given that this use of materials is for that of a storage system, batteries bridging the energy gap between power stations and electric motors powering vehicles, the hydrogen fuel cell starts to look like a much more attractive and workable solution. Indeed, while the answer from fuel cell vehicle makers may seem glib - how about electric cars without batteries - there is a lot of sense behind it.

What does this mean for OEMs, suppliers and the supply chain? Well, all parties are quietly exploring this area, trying not to publicise their efforts too much as they wait for the dust to settle on the rush to build EVs. Major development is quietly going into hydrogen fuel cell technology. In March, Michelin announced a partnership with Faurecia to make hydrogen fuel cell systems; in April, Swedish fuel cell maker Powercell signed a partnership with Bosch to mass-produce fuel cells at volume. These giants in the automotive supply chain are making an informed investment.

Riversimple are based in Wales and this fact has a sad resonance this week, with the news that Ford is consulting on closing its Bridgend engine plant. While it is commonly estimated that there are 10 times as many components in a petrol or diesel engine as in an electric motor, initiatives such as hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and EVs will require different and often more technologically advanced skill sets to produce and this fact must be grasped by all parts of the automotive world, in order to benefit from the cars we will need to make to show our recognition of the implications of events such as World Environment Day.

Simon Duval Smith

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