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Minerals used in electric cars: How much does the US import and from where?

by Michael Sivak, Sivak Applied Research

This post focuses on minerals used uniquely in the manufacture of electric cars. The three questions of interest are: Which minerals are they? Is the United States self-sufficient or are we relying on imports for these minerals? If the latter, what are the source countries?

The table below lists the weight (in kg) of the minerals used in a typical electric car and a typical conventional car. The source of the information is the International Energy Agency, so the data are applicable in general, and they are not specifically tailored to the cars made in the United States. (Note that the relative weight does not necessarily correspond to the relative importance.)

Mineral Electric cars Conventional cars
Graphite (natural and synthetic) 66.3  
Copper 53.2 22.3
Nickel 39.9  
Manganese 24.5 11.2
Cobalt 13.3  
Lithium 8.9  
Rare earths 0.5  
Zinc 0.1 0.1
Others 0.3 0.3

This table shows that out of the eight minerals used in electric cars, five are not used in conventional cars: graphite, nickel, cobalt, lithium, and rare earths. Furthermore, two additional minerals are used more than twice as much in electric cars than in conventional cars: copper and manganese. Finally, zinc is used to the same extent in both types of cars.

The table below includes two sets of information. The first set involves the 2020 U.S. net import reliance for the eight minerals used in electric cars. The data, which come from the US Geological Survey, represent the imports for all uses, and not just for cars. The table shows that the net import reliance is 50% or greater for all but one mineral of interest (indeed, it is 100% for three minerals).

Mineral Net import reliance (%) Major import sources
Natural graphite 100 China, Mexico, Canada, India
Copper 37 Chile, Canada, Mexico
Nickel 50 Canada, Norway, Finland, Russia
Manganese 100 Gabon, South Africa, Australia, Georgia
Cobalt 76 Norway, Canada, Japan, Finland
Lithium >50 Argentina, Chile, China, Russia
Rare earths 100 China, Estonia, Japan, Malaysia
Zinc 83 Canada, Mexico, Peru, Spain

The table also lists the major import sources (in descending order of import share) for all minerals. Again, this information is from the US Geological Survey. (The entries in this table for graphite are for natural graphite. The United States is a major producer of synthetic graphite.)

In conclusion:

  • Five minerals are used for electric cars but not for conventional cars (graphite, nickel, cobalt, lithium, and rare earths). Three minerals are used in both types of cars (copper, manganese, and zinc).

  • The net import reliance for seven of the eight minerals used in electric cars is 50% or greater, with a 100% import reliance on natural graphite, manganese, and rare earths.

  • The main import sources for the eight minerals are Canada (nickel and zinc), China (natural graphite and rare earths), Chile (copper), Gabon (manganese), Norway (cobalt), and Argentina (lithium).

Michael Sivak is the managing director of Sivak Applied Research and the former director of Sustainable Worldwide Transportation at the University of Michigan.



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