Electric vehicles: are we nearly there yet?

We're checking in on the UK's progress towards an all-electric future
03 August 2021
Presented by Chris Smith, Eva Higginbotham
Production by Eva Higginbotham.


Electric vehicle sign


From collecting cobalt to installing infrastructure, what's the latest on how we're getting ready for the electric vehicle revolution? Plus, in the news, with numbers of COVID cases falling across the UK despite the country opening up we’re asking, why? Also, the bottom line on how ventilation can help us keep the pandemic at bay; and how farmers can benefit by giving bees a dose of caffeine...


In this episode

Coronavirus particles.

01:03 - Why are Covid cases dropping in the UK?

Despite many predictions, Covid cases continue to decline after 'Freedom Day', so what's going on?

Why are Covid cases dropping in the UK?
Lawrence Young, Warwick University

As July 19th, “Freedom Day”, approached and the UK dropped the legal requirements for many of the measures that had been implemented to control Covid-19, there were expressions of alarm from around the world. Over 100 scientists signed a letter to the Lancet medical journal stating, “the Government is embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment, and we call on it to pause plans to abandon mitigation.” The WHO’s Mike Ryan said, “The idea that everyone is protected and it’s ‘kum-ba-ya’ and it can go back to normal, is a very dangerous assumption.” And Imperial College’s Professor Neil Ferguson, dubbed by one newspaper as “Pandemic Prognosticator in Chief”, declared, “I think 100,000 cases a day, it’s almost inevitable.” But cases now sit at a quarter of that, and have fallen to less than half of where they peaked, in mid-July, at 60,000 daily cases. Whether this decline will continue is, as yet, uncertain, and there are signs they will probably rise again as “normality” returns, but what’s behind this viral volte-face? Chris Smith asked Warwick University virologist Lawrence Young whether the outcome was one he’d expected, and how he now sees us managing the pandemic as we go forward…

Lawrence - I'm quite surprised by the very steep drop in numbers happening so quickly. It's obviously a combination of a number of different factors - recent hot weather in the UK does help, that promotes people to go outside a bit more in well ventilated, external spaces where the virus doesn't spread as much. The virus doesn't like the sun. We've got really good levels of vaccine uptake. And I think also people are behaving themselves. So even though all the restrictions were lifted in England on the 19th of July, I've seen many people still wearing face masks in indoor areas and just being a little bit cautious, and I'm sure all of that has contributed.

Chris - It's very stark, the contrast with what people were saying in the press though. I mean, you've got the WHO "this is morally reprehensible". You've got very significant political, prominent figures internationally saying that this is a dangerous experiment what the UK did. What do you think they're saying now?

Lawrence - Yeah, I think they're all looking at us as a big experiment really. None of us know how this virus is going to behave, this is uncharted territory for all of us. And whilst many of us, myself included, were really concerned about the lifting of all restrictions in England on the 19th of July, and we have yet to see the impact of that on case numbers, it's quite clear that we've reached some sort of turning point and we just need to keep an eye on numbers. A number of factors also need to be taken into account like how many people are actually being tested at the moment. The numbers do look like they've gone down by about 14% over the last week or so, so there are other factors that might impact this.

Chris - We have been obviously prioritising vaccination for higher risk groups, older people, people judged to be extremely clinically vulnerable. We've worked our way down the age bracket. And the consequence of that was most of the cases that we were seeing were among the young vaccinated, and particularly therefore younger people. Now, given that the numbers did go up quite a lot and then suddenly started to come down and they've come down a lot, does this mean perhaps, as one commentator put it last week, that the virus is just running out of people to infect?

Lawrence - That certainly could be the case. If you look at the number of individuals with antibodies and the impact of certain behavioural changes too. I mean, one of the factors that people have discussed is the football and the impact of the Euros and the way that clearly, perhaps younger people in particular, were more likely to be in crowded spaces, in bars, et cetera, during the football, and that would have had a bounce effect on the numbers and now that's come out obviously. But I still think we need to keep an eye on the 18 to 30-year-olds. We know that that population is still unvaccinated, at least perhaps 30% of that population. If we look at what's happened in other countries, like the Netherlands, it's in that group that the virus has spread and caused the country to impose further restrictions.

Chris - One thing that's got some people confused though is that when we vaccinate against things like measles, we're comfortable that you're probably going to have immunity for life. Whereas we're seeing this situation with these coronaviruses where double jabbed people are still catching it. So it's not really immunity. So what's actually going on?

Lawrence - I think this is a really interesting issue. People are still working on this whole idea of 'how long does the immune response persist for', in individuals who are double vaccinated we're seeing breakthrough infection. And that's why, again, there's this big discussion going on about whether we should be boosting the elderly and most vulnerable over the winter months just to give that additional protective cover to the most vulnerable. And part of this is also understanding how the body's immune response works and whether or not actually, in the future, we might be able to tweak or modify coronavirus vaccines so that we do get long-lived protective immunity.

Chris - It's quite analogous to flu isn't it because probably many more people catch the flu, but they don't realise it because they've got some semblance of immunity from previous infections that means that their severity of illness is mitigated greatly. So are we marching into a sort of regime where coronavirus is probably going to be similar, where we've got background levels of immunity in the population and when people do catch it, they catch it trivially rather than potentially lethally as they would once have done?

Lawrence - That, I guess, is the hope actually. And if you look at the common cold coronaviruses, the viruses that have been in circulation for many, many, many years in human populations, these just cause very low-level infections. And our bodies, particularly youngsters, get reinfected with common cold coronaviruses - their immune systems are getting tweaked all the while. I think the interesting thing is, as we're dealing with virus variants of this coronavirus, to what degree can the current vaccines actually provide appropriate cover for variants that exist and perhaps variants that will crop up in the future? Or are we going to have to live in this cycle of having to tweak vaccines every year, as we do with flu, to cover the predominant new variant of this coronavirus?

Chris - And what do you think?

Lawrence - I think things will settle down after a while. Actually, it might take a year or two, but I think we'll settle down into some form of what we call endemic infection, where the virus is a bit like flu. It may be that we want to continue to vaccinate the elderly and the most vulnerable. But I think some really exciting developments have come alongside this pandemic in terms of vaccine generation. And there's really exciting new work coming out suggesting that it might be possible to develop something called a pancoronavirus vaccine, a vaccine that's going to cover all types of coronavirus, including those that don't currently exist or haven't spilled over into the human population. So I think one of the positives, if there dare I say there is any positive out of the pandemic, is this hastened approach and this new approach to thinking more creatively about vaccines for future outbreaks of virus infection.


08:28 - How can we stop Covid with ventilation?

Ventilation is hugely important to stop the spread of Covid, but what's the best way to ventilate our homes?

How can we stop Covid with ventilation?
Abigail Hathway, University of Sheffield

As the UK and other countries do begin to “open up” more again, and more public events and meetings are taking place, especially indoors, one thing we’re being urged to pay attention to in particular is ventilation: opening windows and doors, keeping fresh air flowing, and turning on air purifiers. And Sally Le Page has been finding out how this can help...

Sally - We all know that to protect each other from COVID it's hands, face, space. Wash your hands, cover your face with a mask, and keep two metres of space between people. But a while ago now, the government added a fourth part to the slogan -  hands, face, space, fresh air. We've known about the role of ventilation and fresh air in reducing the spread of this disease for a while. But for many of us, it's not obvious exactly how we should be using fresh air. And how important is ventilation really?

Abigail - Ventilation is massively important.

Sally - That's Abigail Hathway from Sheffield University, who co-wrote the guidelines on how we should be ventilating buildings during the pandemic

Abigail - If you're infected, you will be breathing out infectious aerosols. They're made up of saliva and then some virus as well if you're infected. And the saliva droplets will evaporate, so then you'll end up with something really tiny, and that means it can float around in the air for a long time

Sally - Are we talking minutes, hours, days?

Abigail - It could be hours. And that then can float around the air and someone else can breathe it in, and if you breathe it in, you could get infected. Now the one way to remove that from the space is by purging the space with lots of ventilation. The more fresh air you bring in, the more you can dilute anything that anyone was putting into the air. So your chance of getting infected is related to how much infectious material you inhale. So the more we can dilute the virus in indoor air, then the less chance other people have of being infected.

Sally - I live in a very normal flat. What should I do to improve the ventilation if I've, say, got someone coming over to watch telly with me?

Abigail - Make sure you open the windows about an hour before they came over. Because if you're infected, you want to make sure you're cleaning the air for your visitor. And equally, when they leave, I'd keep them open for, say, an hour afterward, just to make sure that if anything's lingered around you get plenty of air through. Depending on the kind of window design, if you have windows where you have low windows and high windows, it's much more effective to open a bit at the bottom and a bit at the top than just one of them with a big opening, you'll get a much more efficient air stream. If you've got windows on opposite walls then definitely open the windows on each side of the flat so that you get crossflow because you get much better movement of air by moving the air through the flat. And that might mean opening some internal doors to enable air to flow through the entire flat, rather than just being sort of stuck in one room with the door shut to that room.

Sally - What about fans? Because it's summer I've got a big fan that I have standing in the middle of my room just to keep me cool. Does that help if I've got all the doors and windows shut, but I've got a fan on, the air is circulating? Does that help with COVID?

Abigail - So if you've got everything shut and the fan on, you're just going to be moving infectious particles around. So if you're in a shared room with lots of people, you'll just be very rapidly moving that around everybody in the space. And if you were trying to distance in that space, there is absolutely no point of that because you've just turned on a very efficient way of moving your infectious aerosols to them. As soon as you start opening some windows alongside your fan, then yes, you've got a lot of airflow coming past you. That's going to move those virus particles, but equally, there's a lot of fresh air diluting them. So by the time it gets to someone else, it'll be well diluted so they won't be breathing in so much

Sally - Ever so occasionally I leave my flat and I go on public transport, and I go onto buses, which have those tiny little windows at the top that can tilt open a little bit. Or on to trains. Should I be going in and opening all the windows on trains and buses?

Abigail - Where you can open them? I'd open them. Yes. If they're shut.

Sally - And one thing I thought - when I'm sat next to, say, the window on a bus if it's moving very fast it's blowing a lot of air in at me. Does that mean that if I was infected, it would be blowing all of my COVID back into the bus and people behind me will be getting more infected than if the window is shut?

Abigail - So in that situation what you're breathing out will be blowing back. But crucially, there's also a lot of air mixing with those particles. So the person behind you might get a reasonable dose, but actually the further you get away from you, the more that's going to be mixed with fresh air. And of course, if you wear a mask at the same time, that would reduce how many aerosols you are breathing out. So that would again reduce the risk for people behind you.

Sally - How can I, when I'm going and shops and businesses, how can I work out if there's good ventilation or not?

Abigail - I think it's very difficult as a sort of member of the public. What I do when I go into any place is I have a look at, you know, is there anything in the ceiling that looks like it might be an air vent coming in, as well as looking at perhaps the windows - it's not just looking at open windows. And also, you know, think about how long you're going to be in a space. If you're just popping in to collect some groceries you're not there for very long. If you're going to spend three, four hours in an evening somewhere, that's a much longer period of time to be there with all the other people in the space, and that's a scenario I'd be more concerned about.

Sally - And if there's, say, a crowd of people outside in a park, is that overwhelming amount of fresh air when you're literally outside, is that enough to counteract so many people in a small space?

Abigail - Once you're outside, then you're not going to have a risk of aerosols building up like you would inside, but that's where the distance thing comes into play. And so you do need to be aware of distancing, but ultimately outside is just so much less risky than inside. One thing to be aware of is, are you outside or are you in a semi inside space?

Sally - So that's things like bus shelters, fancy gazebos...

Abigail - Fancy gazebos can be the big thing because you can often put a lot of walls down. So if you're trying to get away from the weather and get away from the breeze, then just be aware you're getting away from that fresh air as well.

Bee in a pink flower

15:16 - Bees get a memory buzz from caffeine

Drinking caffeine-laced sugar solution helps bees remember flowers they enjoyed

Bees get a memory buzz from caffeine
Sarah Arnold, University of Greenwich

Many of us like a cup of coffee to help us wake up in the morning, but it turns out that we’re not the only ones who get a kick out of the caffeine it contains: a new study of bumblebees has shown that caffeine strengthens bumblebee memory formation, meaning it can be used to train bees to be better pollinators for farmers’ crops, as Eva Higginbotham has been hearing from Sarah Arnold…

Sarah - We got a selection of bumblebee colonies, and these are commercial colonies that are bought by growers of fruit crops. And these normally will be deployed within the crop. So a strawberry grower might buy these and let the bees fly out and pollinate their crops. We brought these same colonies into the lab and we allocated them to different treatment groups. So some of these bee colonies received just plain sugar solution. Some of them received sugar solution and also an odour that resembled the smell of strawberry flowers. And the third group of bees received the same sugar, the same odour, but also caffeine in that sugar solution. So as the bees were drinking the sugar solution and smelling that out, they were getting caffeine into their nervous system. And then we released them into a flight arena, which is essentially a wooden box that we can put artificial flowers inside. And in these flight arenas, there were robotic flowers. Half of the robotic flowers had that same artificial strawberry scent that some of the bees had received in the nest and the other half had a distractor odour, so a different smell. And we wanted to see whether the bees that had had the caffeine as well were more biased towards visiting the strawberry odour smelling flowers compared to the distractor flowers, and sure enough, that's what we found. So the caffeine group had a much stronger initial preference for those flowers that smelled like strawberry.

Eva - So how much stronger was the association for the bees with the strawberry flowers who've had the caffeine already priming them in comparison to the bees that didn't have caffeine?

Sarah - The bees that had received caffeine previously chose the target flowers with a strawberry flower odour about 70% of the time at the start compared to that the bees that had received the odour, but no caffeine only chose those flowers 60% of the time. And the bees that had received neither the odour nor the caffeine only chose those flowers, perhaps 44, 45% of the time. So it's quite a noticeable difference.

Eva - And how long did the effect last? Is it kind of like you imprint on the bees that they're always going to want to go for strawberry or does this wear off over time?

Sarah - It does wear off over time. In our experiment, you'd probably expect that because both the distractor flowers and the target flowers had the same sugar reward on them. So it did wear off over time, but the initial effect persisted for perhaps the first 20 bee visits and that's in a very simplified setup. How that would work out in a field situation where everything's a little bit harder, the distances involved are much longer. And for example, on a farm, you wouldn't get strawberry flowers that were mixed in with herbs and weeds and things. On a farm they'd be quite far separated. So it could be more noticeable if you deploy this in a real-life field situation.

Eva - And how might you imagine doing that?

Sarah - What we envisage in the future is that potentially this sort of technology could be incorporated into those boxes of bumblebees that the growers purchase. So the grower would buy a box of bees and already inside that the bees would be getting the odour of the crop flower, a bit of caffeine, and a bit of sugar. So as soon as the grower gets that box and opens the little door on the front so the bees can fly out, they're already targeted and primed ready to go and visit those crop flowers.

Eva - And would a bee normally come across caffeine in the wild, or are they getting this caffeine from people's cups of coffee left on the table?

Sarah - That's a good question. Some bees would probably never encounter caffeine, but caffeine is a naturally produced product. Various plant species do produce it as part of their metabolism. Citrus plants. So like orange trees produce it in their nectar, for example. And recently a wildflower that's present in the UK called Sainfoin has been found to have caffeine in its nectar. So some plants do have it and lots of different sorts of plants. So it's not just concentrated in a single small group of plants.

Eva - Could it be that there's a benefit then to the plants to make caffeine in order to try and trick bees to come to them more often?

Sarah - Absolutely. We think that might be one of the reasons why plants have evolved to have caffeine present in their nectar. If it creates a stronger memory in those bee and other pollinator visitors to keep coming back more and more often because they remember that as being a really great food source, they're really excited about it, and so the plant wins their loyalty.

A track athlete training

20:34 - Keeping cool at the Olympics

Managing body temperature changes can be vital for an athlete's success

Keeping cool at the Olympics
Christof Schwiening,University of Cambridge

Despite the lack of cheering crowds in the stadia, the Olympic games are still making for some absolutely riveting TV. But alongside the sport, there's also a lot of physiology being showcased if you know where to look, particularly since the athletes are battling some very high temperatures, which some are clearly better prepared for than others. Chris Smith spoke with Cambridge University's Christof Schwiening, who runs marathons himself and is also an expert on how the body controls its temperature and the best ways to maintain performance when the mercury begins to climb...

Christof - I've been watching a lot of the women's events recently. The women's triathlon and the women's road race were really nice examples of seeing athletes who were one, very well-trained and they were, on the whole, the ones at the front who were doing the kind of things that I would advise them to do, then those just behind them who were doing the right things on race day to compensate, but not having quite got their physiology in the best possible place. So the triathlon, if I can give you a quick example of the women's with Flora Duffy who came first. And she was on the final run, really just focusing on running, and she wasn't doing much in the way of drinking water or eating anything. She was just running. So she was excellently trained. And Georgia Taylor Brown, who was just behind her, not as well heat adapted so she probably hadn't had quite the right training, and she was dumping water over herself. And if you watch the video, it's absolutely fantastic. She's taking two bottles, dumping the water over herself at virtually every stop that she can. And I think that's a fantastic strategy. So as a physiologist is wonderful to see both the training and the race execution coming from the two different parts of the sort of training spectrum.

Chris - So is this all about heat then?

Christof - Well it's not just controlling body temperature, it's also pacing and adopting the right strategies. So I have a nice example in that I did a race actually, about 10 days ago, at 30 degrees C. It was a half marathon race at Eton Dorney. And I'm not terribly well trained at the moment, I'd say I'm actually quite unfit, but I set off in the race with exactly the same strategy as Georgia Taylor Brown, dumping the water over myself. And I started off very carefully in terms of the pacing, so considerably slower than the time that I could have got in cool conditions. And I think that's the critical thing because as you develop in the race, as it goes on and you get past the sort of about hour mark or so you see people really overheating and they're slowing down, having to slow down to cut their metabolic heat production to avoid their core body temperature going too high. And of course, there were runners collapsing all over the course. And I found myself, as these runners were going down, shouting out "Pour water over him!" as they were saying "His core temperature is up at 40 degrees C!"

Chris - Is the best approach just to drink a whole heap more water then?

Christof - No, why on earth drink? Because if you drink, you've got the middleman of your gut. So you put the water into the gut, and then you've got to get the blood flow to the gut and you don't want the blood flowing to the gut. You want the blood flowing to the muscles, into your lungs. You don't want it going to the gut, but you've got to have blood flow to the gut to grab that water and then get it into the actual bloodstream. And of course, if you haven't heat adapted, all that happens is that water that you get into the blood goes into the cells of your body instead of the bloodstream because they've dehydrated as a result of the sweating. So I think external cooling is absolutely the key thing to do in the heat, cut out the middleman and dump the water on you, cutting out the whole process of sweat production.


26:06 - Electric vehicles in the UK: what's the deal?

As electric vehicle sales continue to rise, we caught up with Fully Charged's Robert Llewellyn

Electric vehicles in the UK: what's the deal?
Robert Llewellyn, Fully Charged

Robert Llewellyn, famous for his appearances in the sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf and the hit TV series “Scrapheap challenge”, is now founder and host of Fully Charged - a youtube show all about electric vehicles. Robert spoke with Chris Smith, and started off by telling us what he drives...

Robert - I drive, well, my wife and I share two cars. We have a Hyundai Kona, which is a fully electric car and a Tesla Model 3.

Chris - So you've gone really very much down the electric track. Hence the YouTube show.

Robert - Yes. I think I sold my last combustion engine vehicle, which was a Land Rover, which was highly inappropriate for what I do now, in I think 2012. So I haven't had a combustion car in my life since then.

Chris - What's your average sort of day to day vehicle movement, though? How much of a reliance do you place on having a car to do what you do?

Robert - Well, I live in a remote, rural area, so I'm entirely reliant on it even to go to the shops. I mean, I did last summer, during the lockdown, I cycled to the shops three times, just to sort of see what it was like. It's nine miles on very hilly roads, but I have an electric bike, but with a rucksack for the shopping, it's still quite a challenge. So yes, we drive. We have to drive, even if we're going nowhere, we will drive to the shops locally. The two shops I use that are local to me now both have free chargers in the car park, which is very handy. So if I time it right, I can end up back at home with more miles in the range than when I left home, which is always a result.

Chris - Yes. Assuming of course, that you can get on one of those chargers, they Robert. Cause that's the point, isn't it. It's are they free those chargers? If you're that remote, I suppose they probably are. You're probably the only person with two electric cars in the district, but that's an issue, isn't it?

Robert - It's a fear that is certainly very popularised by the sort of popular press. I have once been to our local supermarket. And I was really thrilled to see all four chargers being used because there are actually a lot more electric cars and the kind of concept of people going, "Oh, well, we might be changing to electric cars in the next 10 years". It's happening now. The sales of electric cars are off the scale. The increase is in the hundreds of percent. It is. So there are so many more electric cars around now than they were even a year ago. It's gone from 2% about 18 months ago to 12% of new car sales. That is a massive increase. I still think it's tiny. And it proves the fact that there are still people today who think, "Oh, I know what I'll do. I'll buy a brand new combustion engine car" with all the disadvantages and the costs and the hidden costs of doing that. There's still people doing it. So there's an enormous distance to go, an enormous educational journey we still have to go on.

Chris - So what do you think has driven that very big increase that you've just highlighted? Why are people switching to electric cars?

Robert - I think it's word of mouth. So, someone you know up the road, down the road, next door, family member, they drive an electric car and they go, it's alright. It's just a car, which it is. It's just a car. You still gotta park it. You still gotta, you know, all the other things you have to do with cars, sit in traffic jams: electric cars don't remove you from that. But it's so much easier to drive. It's so much easier to look after. It's so much cheaper to fuel. That that information, when it is passed from someone you know and someone who you know about - your brother, your sister, your dad, your mum, you know, anyone - you then start to consider it in a different way. And I think that's what's happening. And because there's so many more people have got them now that's spreading faster and faster. At the very base level, it's a better technology than an internal combustion engine. There's no argument about that. And no one will argue about that. Even proper, full on petrol heads that have ever been near an electric car, they go, "No, it is better. I admit that, but I love the sound of my V8 or whatever other excuse they have".

Chris - I'll buy the point about the energy costs, I'll buy that. But I'll sort of flip it around and say to you, but what about the huge upfront capital cost? Because an electric car is a lot more expensive to buy in the first place. And therefore, when you actually take that into account and the fact that when you charge it and discharge it, you are clapping out the battery and the batteries weigh a ton in the average car, literally a ton. So they are not trivial to replace. Once you factor that in, is it still price competitive?

Robert - How many - let's go with a particular brand - Mercedes high-class petrol engine limousines do 500,000 miles without having to have a new engine, gearbox, transmission, system, clutch? None. How many Teslas are there? There are dozens now. Tesla Model S: same size car, similar cost to buy, that have done over half a million miles as limousines between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Electric cars last longer. The batteries outlast the cars.a The nonsense concept of tossing away a battery is one of the most profound and brilliantly planted lies of the fossil fuel industry. It is not true. Electric cars last longer. The batteries last longer in 2009, Jeremy Clarkson drove a Nissan Leaf on Top Gear and said, the problem is you'll have to throw the battery away after three years. He said that. There's recordings of him saying that. The same car he drove, not the same model, the actual car that he drove on that show is in use today by a medical health worker who lives in south London, who uses it every day. The battery is fine. That is now 12 years later.


31:59 - How do lithium-ion batteries work?

Imagine Jenga towers built up of lithium-ion blocks...

How do lithium-ion batteries work?
Lizzie Driscoll, University of Birmingham

The most common type of electric vehicle battery is called a ‘lithium-ion ‘ battery. Lizzie Driscoll, from the University of Birmingham, invites us to liken the inner workings of a battery to that addictive party game “Jenga”, where you take turns to dislodge wooden blocks from a progressively more precariously balanced tower...

Lizzie - I want you to picture two towers of Jenga blocks built up. These are our electrodes inside the battery, and in our example, they are built up of several different elements. In one Jenga tower, we have blocks made of cobalt and lithium arranged in alternating layers. The other Jenga tower is made up of only carbon blocks, and the tower has conspicuous gaps where blocks are missing. When we charge a battery like this and pump energy into the system, the lithium blocks get pulled out of the first Jenga tower and slot into those gaps in the second tower. After some time, all the lithium blocks fill up all the gaps to make a full Jenga tower of carbon and lithium, and because it took energy to make that carbon-lithium tower, energy is stored up in the structure. When we then use the battery, the lithium blocks move back into the first Jenga tower, releasing energy that we harness to power our electric vehicles, for example. If the lithium blocks are being taken out of the cobalt tower too slowly it will take a long time to charge our battery, but if we take them out too quickly, well, we all know what can happen with Jenga! The towers will collapse and be of no use at all. So we need to find a good balance of speed when charging. Finally, imagine you’re repeating this process of moving blocks between Jenga towers over and over again - the towers aren’t going to remain in perfect shape. This is what battery degradation looks like, and why all batteries ultimately will only last so long...much like a Jenga tower in my house!

Circular pattern in metal

34:15 - Supply chains: building EV batteries

Where do we source the materials for electric vehicle batteries, and how can we ensure we have enough?

Supply chains: building EV batteries
Arnold Tukker, Leiden University

Electric vehicles are powered by, you’ve guessed it, batteries; and being able to build enough of those batteries - and in an environmentally sensitive and sustainable way - is critical if the EV concept is to have any long term traction. But where do we get all the components from to build them? Eva Higginbotham spoke with supply chain expert Arnold Tukker from Leiden University, starting with what materials we need to think most carefully about, and Fully Charged's Robert Llewellyn weighed in...

Arnold - There's lithium, there's nickel, there is cobalt, manganese, and these are really materials you need in large volumes

Eva - And do we have enough of these materials in general?

Arnold - Are the materials there? Likely yes, but the real problem is that our mining infrastructure at this moment is not built for that kind of volume, so you have to ramp it up quite quickly. And mining companies may do that if they know that they can sell the stuff they mine, and if they don't know it, they may not invest. If a new technology comes around and all of a sudden, let's say, we don't need cobalt anymore, well, okay, good luck if you just invested a billion or two in opening a new cobalt mine.

Eva - So is that where we get most of these materials at the moment, like cobalt, we get them through mining?

Arnold - At this moment

Eva - And where are those mines generally located?

Arnold - Yeah, that depends quite a lot on the material you're talking about. When you talk about lithium, Bolivia in Latin America is quite important. Cobalt: it is the Congo, which is, I would say, quite a problematic country, because, let's say, the government doesn't have a lot of control over the country. So one of the problems that you often see in these cases, if you have to get the materials from one or two suppliers, then you create quite quickly a monopoly. If you have to mine it in countries that are not very stable, and then you also get a fairly unstable supply and a difficult supply. So those are a few of the issues that you see when you really want to go for large volumes of small, let's say metals, that you actually, at this point, don't use that often.

Eva - If there are sort of not just practical, but also ethical issues with sourcing some of these materials, why can't we just make batteries that don't require cobalt or don't require some of these materials that are so intertwined with this stuff?

Arnold - I think that all comes down to chemistry. I'm a chemist by training. From my chemistry years I know quite well that if you want to make a certain material with certain capabilities or characteristics, you often need certain mixtures of certain elements. The same happens with batteries. If you really want to have batteries with can store a lot of electricity, at this moment, let's say lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, these batteries are the kind of battery of choice because they can store the most amount of electricity in the smallest space. You have to use these metals because that gives you the performance that we need at this moment.

Eva - And so going from, you know, the cobalt in the ground to the electric vehicle battery ready to go, can you talk me through the supply chains and the people involved in getting it there?

Arnold -  So of course you have a mine. That can be fairly professional mines which are well-run and you try to take care of the environment, until let's say more artisan mining that, for instance, happens in the Congo, and then you get these horrible pictures of kids going into a hole and getting the material basically. Then you have, let's say, rock with a certain amount of metal. Then you have to crush the rock, then you have to extract the material in one way or another, and then you have the metal. Then, of course, you have to go to making intermediate products for making the battery. So you see already quite easily, they have 3, 4, 5 big steps in the supply chain before you have your battery. And in each step in the supply chain, you can have your own problems. It can be that for certain metals, the processes to really, let's say, extract the metal in a pure form out of the ore can be quite complicated. So, well, China is fairly strong in that and they actually have the best technologies. On the one hand, they sit on the mining, and all the other hand they sit on the extraction technology. So it can be that again, there you have a kind of monopolist bottleneck.

Chris - Robert Llewellyn is still with us. Robert, do you see this as a problem: availability of the material? Do you think that could cause the growth of the EV market to stall, if we can't lay our hands on enough of these materials?

Robert - I don't think so. I think Arnold Tukker made some really good points there about the difficulties for the mining industry in investing, because there are new battery chemistries and new battery designs being developed now. They're in laboratories at the moment, but certainly within the next five years, we're going to see some completely different battery designs that don't require the more contentious elements. I mean, a huge amount of cobalt is used in oil refining. The oil industry relies very much on cobalt for removing sulphur, particularly from diesel. There's an amazing company in the UK called Benchmark Mineral Intelligence who have a very different take on the availability of minerals around the world and where they're from. For example, most lithium comes from Australia. It doesn't come from Bolivia and Chile, which is the very commonly quoted thing. The largest amounts of most of the materials that we use in electric cars are from Australia and are mined responsibly, in a far more environmentally aware way, let's say.


39:50 - Recycling tech for electric vehicle batteries

Making the most of the precious components used to make EV batteries

Recycling tech for electric vehicle batteries
Gavin Harper, University of Birmingham

Car batteries do eventually degrade and need to be replaced. They contain critical and rare materials which need to be recycled, and if we don’t recycle them, the environmental arguments for electric vehicles are undermined, so recycling is a major priority, but it’s also in its infancy, as Eva Higginbotham has been hearing from Gavin Harper from the University of Birmingham. Fully Charged's Robert Llewellyn also weighed in...

Eva - To try and understand the complex world of battery recycling I went to expert Gavin Harper from the University of Birmingham. And first things first, how long do these batteries actually last before they need to be replaced? Turns out that's hard to say.

Gavin - It's a how long is a piece of string question because there are different cathode materials, which is the active material in the battery, and obviously, there are different manufacturers, different formulations, different technologies.

Eva - There's also whether the battery has active or passive cooling, how you've treated the battery over time, and the technology is also continuously evolving and being upgraded. Car manufacturers though are currently offering warranties on their batteries for about eight years, which Gavin thinks seems to be a good design life for these batteries. And it's also worth considering that after the first life in an electric vehicle, the battery could be given a second life.

Gavin - For example, we could use that electric vehicle battery for stationary energy storage to support the grid or to provide backup power. So, you know, between the first life in a vehicle and a second life in a different application, you know, we can really squeeze the pips out of the technology

Eva - But for batteries that really have reached the end of the road and can't be reused or repurposed, there are a range of different recycling technologies being used and developed, the simplest being pyrometallurgy

Gavin - That is a process where the batteries are put into a pyrometallurgical smelter, it enables us to extract some of the valuable metals in the battery. So things like cobalt and nickel we can get very easily from that process.

Eva - One of the caveats though, of pyrometallurgy is that some of the battery components get consumed in the process while others end up in what's called a slag from which useful materials can be very difficult to recover. Another option, though, is hydrometallurgy, which uses liquid to leech out the active components, and here you get to use special shredders

Gavin - Rather than putting sheets of paper in we've got very big shredders with very big teeth.

Eva - These break the battery apart, but, as happens with shredders, what comes out is a lot of jumbled-up material. And it can then take a long time to pick out the bits you actually want for a new battery. The ideal, according to Gavin, would be Direct Recycling where the important and costly material that makes up the electrodes in the battery, the lithium or the cobalt for example, is cleanly separated out from the battery and rejuvenated, ready to be put back in. And there's lots of research going on at the moment to try and improve this technology. But we have to remember that before we can get to the point of recycling there's a lot of unseen steps. The battery has to be removed from the car unscrewed and everything disconnected safely and taken apart. And Gavin thinks that once we are recycling electric vehicle batteries at scale in the future, we're going to have to find a way of automating this process.

Gavin - There are some really interesting scientific challenges around how can you get robots and artificial intelligence to be able to perform some of these automated steps. And if you think about it, it's a much more complex challenge than manufacturing a battery with robots, because if you think about things on a production line, a robot just has to perform a very repetitive set of motions to produce a very uniform product. If you're processing batteries at the end of life, we've got such a fast array of different battery types from different manufacturers there's an awful lot of variety to contend with. And so if you're going to build a robot or an automated system to process those batteries, you're going to need an awful lot of flexibility, and you're gonna need a lot of intelligence in that robot. It can't just be a dumb robot that performs a repetitive series of actions.

Eva - So along with smarter, greener tech for our cars, we need smarter robots to be able to handle them. And although there are more sophisticated battery recycling facilities being developed in the UK and abroad, it seems the recycling industry is going to have to get into gear if we're to make the most of our electric car batteries in the future.

Chris - Gavin Harper, from the University of Birmingham, talking with Eva earlier. Robert, with your Scrapheap Challenge hat on, perhaps, what's your take on this?

Robert - You're absolutely right, we do need to be able to recycle them really well. I mean, it's a massive business opportunity. So one of the founders of Tesla in America, JB Straubel has formed a company called Redwood Materials, which is already operating. It's recycling thousands and thousands of tons of thrown away phones and laptops and tablets and all that stuff. And extracting huge amounts that are in the 90% of the material out of that. So it is already happening. There's a company in Germany we went to see on Fully Charged to do exactly the same thing. So of course it's got to happen and I just want to quickly remind our listeners that when was the last time you heard about someone recycling a litre of diesel?

A sign for an electric vehicle charging station.

45:19 - Charging points: managing the future for EVs

From people's homes to workplaces to on the motorway, charging points are being placed all over the country...

Charging points: managing the future for EVs
Colin Herron, Zero Carbon Futures

Chris Smith spoke with automotive expert Colin Herron from Zero Carbon Futures about the future of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and Robert Llewellyn from Fully Charged weighed in...

Chris - Do you drive an electric vehicle?

Colin - I'm in my eighth year of a fully electric car. Up to now, I don't go on extremely long journeys. I tend to use it within an urban environment. So probably the longest journey will be about an 80 mile round trip.

Chris - Which is perfect, isn't it? Because that sort of scope is well within the envelope of what the batteries can cope with. And it's not a major inconvenience, but if you want to go farther, then it becomes more of a headache, doesn't it?

Colin - Well, it does, but there is massive infrastructure going in, especially on the motorway services. Companies like Gridserve are now putting 12 high power chargers. And I know you mentioned the three kilowatt potential at home. We're now installing chargers which are a hundred times more powerful than that. 350 kilowatt in 150 is standard. So it can take a very long time to charge a car, but with a high power charge, you're now down to forty minutes.

Chris - How many of these charging points are there? I mean, if I go up the main motorway up the backbone of England up the M1 or up the A1 for example, and I need to charge up, how many charging points can I rely on there being available for the car I drive on the way up there?

Colin - If you're actually using only motorway stopping, there will be at least two and soon six in every motorway service station. Nationally around the country, there's about quarter of a million charge points. But I will add, as you pointed out with the three pin plug, there's at least 28 million homes with a three pin plug. Some people are very worried about running out of charge. What the situation is, is that this infrastructure is going in at a massive rate and it's going in in parallel with the car sales. The challenge which we will find is unfortunately not all of them are in the right place. And that is because we haven't currently got a national strategy for the rollout of charge points. That's the problem.

Chris - We've been hearing from Robert Llewellyn on the programme, who he was saying he lives in a rural area, and luckily his rural local shop happens to have a charging point. But some people are, I think, legitimately highlighting we are in danger of having rural no-go areas for electric cars because there just isn't the density that you've been talking about on motorways for people to charge up.

Colin - That is a challenge which a lot of people are looking at, and to be quite honest, there are actually some houses in the Northumberland area where I am, where the house isn't actually powered by grid electricity either. But one thing to put in perspective is that we don't end up in the full situation til 2035 for new vehicles, and it will be about 2045 before we really do run out of conventional vehicles. So this is not something which has to be solved this year or in the next five years, because we only have a quarter of a million BEV on the road now. So we've got approximately one charger in the country for every BEV, but it's a long way to go before we have 35 million BEV.

Chris - I'd like to put to you a point from MPs debating in the House of Commons this week. They said there could be blackouts caused by electric cars if all the drivers charged them at night. MPs are warning that they want to see people on some kind of dynamic charging system so they plug in at low peak periods to stop the country running out of electricity. Is this rubbish?

Colin - There is some logic in that, but I would point out that my car at the moment is not plugged in. And if everybody filled up with petrol at six o'clock at night, the fuel system would collapse as well. And people don't fill up at six o'clock every night and people with an electric vehicle with 200 miles like me do not plug in at six o'clock every night. It's a fallacy, it's a myth.

Chris - So is the solution then to just have a more dynamic system so people's cars are a bit more intelligent and they only take the juice out of the grid at a time that's convenient for the grid.

Colin - No, unfortunately we are still trying to guess the behaviours of the population, what they will do. So for instance, until recently where I work, I can charge at work or I can charge at home. If I can charge at work and it is potentially cheaper at work, I will not be plugging in at home. I may want the convenience of going to a replica petrol station, which has got EV pumps so I can charge quickly. I may just top up when I go to a supermarket. The thing we've got now is we are rapidly changing the method of charging; store charging, fast charging, rapid charging, and the battery capacities are increasing all of the time as is the range. So what we're trying to do now is guess what about 35 million drivers will do who've never, ever driven an electric vehicle. So the technology now is changed from, I first got a car and I knew when Robert Llewellyn got his first Leaf, we could do 86 miles if we were lucky, not 200 miles. So we're constantly trying to guess and work out to put this infrastructure in and shape a grid, not knowing what people will do with the technology that they've never had before.

Chris - Robert, what's the Fully Charged take on this?

Robert - What my experience of this is, is when I first had an electric car, 2009, there was one, literally one, rapid charger that was behind a locked gate at the Mitsubishi headquarters in Cirencester. That was the only one in the country. It very rarely worked. The instructions are in Japanese. It was a really comical experience to go and use it. It was ridiculous. Colin said how many there are now there's thousands and thousands of them. The company here, Gridserve, who are installing really tens of thousands of chargers around, at the moment they're touch-to-pay, but they have a system now where you literally lift up the cable, put it in the car, the car starts charging, you don't do anything. And it has to be like that. If it isn't like that, it isn't going to work. It's got to be frictionless. And that's the point I think. The point is that the painful process we've been through up to this point, of working out how to operate a charging network that can make money for the people who put it in, but is reliable and predictable, and when you're driving along you can see that there are chargers available at the location you're aiming for, but also really, really important: I rarely use the public charging network. Really once or twice a month. And I drive a lot. I drive way above the average mileage because I drive all over this country to film things. So way, way more than most people do. When I do go on longer journeys, they are really long. I'm talking thousands of miles and it's easy. It's boring, it's tedious, and my bladder needs to stop far more often than the car.

Chris - What about the time it takes? I don't mean the bladder emptying. I mean, to charge the car. I mean, that could be an advantage if you do need to make a lot of toilet stops, but this is the other issue, isn't it? The time it takes to recharge.

Robert - So the speed of all these things are going to get faster very quick. So a 350 kilowatt charger, the only car that's currently available in the UK that can use that is the Porsche Taycan, which is over a hundred thousand pounds. But that will charge, when I first plugged one of those into a 350 kilowatt capable charger, it added 22 miles in probably a minute. So that sort of charging is the level that we're going to be looking at in the next five years. So by 2030, a really critical point I think, is what roles electric cars have other than driving us around. So currently we have petrol and diesel cars, we'd sit in them and we drive them. And then we park for 95% of the time we own them. If you have an electric car, you can run your house off it. And if you don't, if you're not running your house off, you can help run the grid off it and get paid money. So there's a whole array of technologies, which will really have an enormous impact and a great beneficial impact on our society.

Hawaiian underwater magma flow

QotW: Is lava wet?

Sally Le Page spoke with geologist Brooke Johnson from the University of Oxford to find out more...

Brooke - The dictionary definition of wet is “covered or saturated with liquid” which makes sense when you think of water. If you get in the shower and turn the tap on, you definitely get wet pretty quickly. If you’ve seen videos of lava, you’ve seen how runny it can be. It certainly looks like a liquid, but lava is not actually a liquid. Lava is molten rock it’s more like a very gooey solid. Like toffee, but heated to a thousand degrees, and made of minerals.

Sally - Mmmm, imagine a volcano that erupted rivers of toffee...

Brooke - So, in the strict definition of things, lava can’t be wet because it’s not a liquid, it can’t make things wet or saturate them. If you watch a video of something getting thrown into lava, it doesn’t go “splash” and sink, it goes “thud” and then bursts into flames.

Sally - I can confirm having just spent far too much time watching videos of people throwing random objects into lava, that they do just go thud and burst into flames.

Brooke - Lava is made of minerals, minerals are inorganic naturally occurring solid materials, that have defined chemical ingredients, and a defined crystal structure. That means that water ice is a mineral, and that means that water is a type of lava.

Sally - I’m just going to repeat that because it is mind blowing. Ice fits the definition of a mineral. And so by definition, water is a type of lava. Water is lava. My brain just erupted.

Brooke - By that logic you could rephrase the question as 'is water wet' which is the sort of philosophical question I don't think anyone can answer. So, is lava wet? Usually not, but it can sometimes be water.

Sally - Moving from red hot to red spot, next week’s question of the week comes from Ruomei

Ruomei - Why do ladybugs have different numbers of spots on their backs?


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Re: Is lava wet?
I had to listen to this three times, and then read over the transcript.
It is incorrect to state that lava is not liquid, or that it is made of minerals.
Lava is a liquid which typically contains entrained solid particles. The solid particles are minerals that crystallize from the liquid, plus perhaps refractory minerals that did not melt to begin with.
As the lava cools, it typically becomes a mixture of minerals and glass. The glass is material that does not have a crystal structure, and is therefore not a mineral. Indeed, science is not clear as to whether glass is liquid, solid, or something in between.

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