Electric and Autonomous car

We could be buying Apple’s autonomous electric vehicle soon!

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On February 13th, 2021, the headline of the Times London online was “Britons are at the back of  a year-long queue for new Tesla model. Another headline in the Barron’s online reads “Electric vehicles were a non-starter until Tesla comes along.

There were a few starts for electric vehicles in the last 100 years. The Barron’s article highlighted several interesting facts.  In 1959 there were a half-dozen companies racing to bring out the first  electric automobile in a half-century. Leading the way was the Nu-Klea Starlite, a new electric model being billed as an “economy car”. At that point pint, Barron’s noted: “Simply by plugging the car into an electric outlet each night, thereby recharging the batteries, the owner can drive about 80 miles the next day at a cost of about US20 cents.”

The Nu-Klea Starlite  failed and no other successful EVs  emerged from this period. It continued for the rest of the 20th century-high hopes dashed by  lack of vision, willpower, and funding. It took an new century, the 21st century, for EVs to be embraced by car-buying consumers.  

Short history of the EV

The first  exciting age of the EVs  happened in the first decade of the 20th century. According to Barron’s the stately, battery-powered sedans of the pre-World Wat 1 era were purchased by well-to-do urbanites. President Woodrow Wilson drove around the White House in his Milburn Electric. Unlike gasoline-powered cars, EVs rode clean and silent, with little effort or maintenance needed. But they lacked speed (about 40 km per hour) and range of about 97 to 112 km per charge, largely because the batteries were so heavy.

The first electric age effectively ended in 1915, after Henry Ford and Thomas Edison teamed up to take  a crack at EVs. The EVs produced were too slow, too heavy and too costly. The EV project was dropped by the two “giant men” of the period.

That was pretty  much where things still stood in 1959, when Klea Starlite made its disappointing debut. EVs were not abandoned. They were produced as golf carts, and “British milk floats”.

Fast-forward to 1968, when Barron’s reported that GM. Ford and Chrysler were boasting about their research on smogless vehicles. The big hope this time was a Union Carbide electric motorcycle, which achieved 40 km per hour . The motorcycle was “strictly experimental”, and the big the  American automobile companies has nothing of their own to offer except vague promises of electric passenger vehicles that might be ready for commercial production in 10 to 15 years.

Barron’s wrote another decade passed. Then, on June 13th, 1977, Barron’s cited “renewed interest in EVs,” this time because of concerns about the oil embargo and air pollution. Yet the only producer of EVs was Sebring-Vanguard, whose Citicar two-seater “boast a top speed of 61 km per hour and can go about 60 km per charge. “The Citicar was flimsy, Barron’s wrote, “it is not allowed on major highways.”

Some 13 years later, in 1990, then GM CEO Roger Smith, “desperate for a piece of good news on which to end his career,“ as Barron’s puts, introduced a new EV programme with great fanfare. But the effort didn’t yield a car until 1996—the General Motors EV1, a two-seater with an initial range of just about 97 km. GM pulled the plug on production in 1999., sparking controversy in the documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?

By 2002, the big car makers knew that the gasoline engine was “rumbling into end of its product cycle,” with Ford, GM and the then DaimlerChrysler “well spending over US$1 billion a year on new-engine technologies, “ including hybrids, Barron’s wrote. Led by Toyota’s Prius, there were 50,000 hybrids on US roads.

Enter Tesla

The modern EV era begins with Tesla and CEO Elon Musk, a visionary like Ford or Edison. Musk’s goal was is “an electric-car revolution,“ and instead of building another niche economy EV, Musk shot for the moon with a high-end sports car, the Tesla Roadster. Barron’s admitted that it underestimated the power of Musk’s revolution. A 2013 cover story panned the stock, Tesla Inc., suggesting that Tesla’s fans “are viewing its prospects through 3-D glasses.” Today, the company is worth more than US$800 million, producing about 500,00 vehicles per year.

Planned  Entry of Apple Inc.

Many traditional car companies and new EV start-ups have joined Tesla to produce EVs in the US, Europe, China and Japan. New eco-system of EV has emerged including large battery production and  sophirtai9cted software to provide various features which are not available in today’s gasoline-powered cars.

More interesting is the planned entry of Apple Inc. into the automobile industry. The Times on London Times on February 16th, 2021, noted this development. Apple, which has overhauled the personal, music and mobiles market, has remained silent over its plans for vehicles. Its car plan, known internally as Project Titan, have been in the works for some years. It was reported that the company intended to produce a passenger vehicle in 2024. An analyst at Morgan Stanley, Katy Huberty, noted the smartphone market is worth US$500 billion each year. “The mobility market is worth US$10 trillion, so Apple would only need a 2 per cent market share of this market to be the size of their phone business,” she told clients.

In smartphones Apple uses a major contract manufacturer, Foxconn Technology Group, to produce all its smart phones. Apple its efforts on designing, software development and marketing. Major car companies have been making announcements that they are interested to partner Apple to produce tis vehicle.  

The Times London quoted the CEO of Volkswagen, the largest car company in the world, that it was not afraid of Apple’s plan to enter the automotive industry. He said the global car market would not be transformed overnight. He has to be careful!

Apple has led to the failure of Nokia, then the market leader of mobile phone. We believe the business model of the mobility industry is ripe for major disruption after 100 years. CEOs of major car companies have to take note that Apple has a cash in hand of US$191.83 billion, meaning they  has  substantial ammunition to compete in the new autonomous electric vehicle industry.   

Must-Read Reports

African giant rats trained to sniff out disease

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Magawa, the most famous African giant rat

Occasionally small rats entered our kitchen to sniff out for leftover foods. If they are not lucky, they are caught by my cats, Salina  Boy or Charlie. Instead of being considered a pest, a species of rat, the African giant pouched rat, is being trained to detect a disease that is devastating livestock and threatening the livelihoods of farmers in the world’s poorest countries, as quoted by the Times of London on January 29th, 2021.

Brucellosis is a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes infertility and low milk yields in cows, sheep, goats and pigs. Detection is hard and expensive.

Glasgow University is working with researchers at Sokoine University in Tanzania on using sniffer rats to tackle the problem. The African giant pouched rats, which can grow to 91 cm in length, have already been trained to detect landmines and tuberculosis.

Dan Haydon, director of the institute of biodiversity, animal health and comparative medicine at Glasgow University, said that the idea developed after he discovered how sniffer dogs were being used to detect brucellosis in Yellowstone National Park, in the United States, where there is a brucella problem with elk, bison and cattle. “Professor Rudovick Kazwala, who is lead researcher at Sokoine, said, ‘Aha, well, we already have this facility where rats are being specially trained to sniff landmines and tuberculosis’”, Professor Haydon said.“So, we figured if they can smell landmines and smell TB then surely we can get them to smell brucellosis. It turns out you can.”

The scientists received a grant to conduct the research through the British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Testing has delivered encouraging results so far.

The African giant pouched rat is used rather than the standard lab rat because they are easier to source in sub-Saharan Africa and live longer.

It takes nine months and costs about £5,000 to train a rat, which can then speed through 100 samples in 20 minutes.

Magawa, the most famous African pouched rat

Magawa has been awarded a prestigious gold medal for his work deteting land mine, according to the website, www.bbc.com on September 24th, 2020. Magawa has sniffed out 39 landmines and 28 unexploded munitions in his career. The UK veterinary charity PDSA has presented him with its Gold Medal for “life -saving devotion to duty, in the location and clearance of deadly landmines in Cambodia”.

PDSA’s Gold Medal is inscribed with the words “For animal gallantry or devotion to duty”. Of the 30 animals recipients of the award,  Magawa is the first rat. The seven-year-old Magawa was trained by the Belgium-registered charity Apopo (www.apopo.org),  which is based in Tanzania and has been raising the animals,-known as HeroRats-to detect landmines and tuberculosis since 1990s. The animals are certified after a year of training.  

According to Apopo, Magawa was born and raised in  Tanzania-weighs 1.2 kg and is 70 cm long. While that is far larger than many other socies, Magawa is still small enough and light enough that he does not trigger mines if he walks over them.

The rats are trained to detect a chemical compound  within the explosives,  meaning they ignore scrap metal and can search for mines more quickly. Once they find an explosive, they scratch the top to alert their human co-workers.

Magawa is capable of searching a field the size of a  tennis court in just 20 minutes-something Apopo says would take a person with a metal detector between one and four days. Magawa works for just an hour a day in the mornings and is nearing retirement age, but PDSA director, Jan McLoughlin, said his work with Apopo was “truly unique and outstanding”. “Magawa’s work directly saves and changes the lives of men, women and children who are impacted by these landmines, says PDSA. “Every discovery he makes reduces the risk of injury or death for local Cambodians.”

The training of African giant pouched rat

African giant pouched rats can live between 6 to 8 years. This long lifespan for  a rat makes training a worthwhile  investment. They are food motivated and willing to work with just about any handler for a proper reward.  

From now on, I will tell my cats not to kill the rats around our house as their species are saving human lives in countries which have the problem of landmines and  unexploded munitions.      

Must-Read Reports

Sir, here is your mealworms in curry sauce

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Tenebrio molitor’s larvae is popular as insect-food

When I was small, living in a village with many rivers and natural ponds, a favourite hobby was fishing for fresh water fish. We would find larvae of beetles in fallen sago palms and used it as a fish bait. In remote parts of Sarawak in East Malaysia, locals eat these live larvae as delicacies as they are considered nutritious and as aphrodisiacs. Fallen sago palms are favourite places to find the  larvae.

The larvae of beetles is no longer only for locals in remote regions of Asia. It was reported in the Guardian, dated January 13th, 2021, these larvae could soon be mass produced across Europe after the insect became the first to be found safe for human consumption by the European Union (EU) Food Safety Agency. The larvae of the beetle Tenebrio molitor could be eaten in powder form as part of a recipe or as crunchy smacks.  

The conclusion of scientists at the EU Food Safety Agency, following application by the French insect-for-food production company, Agronutris, is expected to lead to EU-wide approval within months of yellow mealworm as a product fit for supermarket shelves and kitchen pantries across the continent.

Mealworms are the larval stage of the beetle, Tenebrio molitor, a species of darkling beetle. Like all holometabolic insects, they go through four life stages: eggs, larvae, pupa, and adult. Larvae typically measures about 2,5 cm or more, whereas adults are generally between 1.25 and 1.8 cm in length.

A bunch of mealworms

Interesting Facts

According to Wikipedia.org, the mealworm beetle breeds prolifically. Mating is a three-step process: the male chasing the female, mounting her and inserting his aedeagus, and injecting a sperm packet. Within a few days the female burrows into soft ground and lays eggs. Over a lifespan, a female, on average, lay about 500 eggs.

After four to 19 days the eggs hatch. Many predators  target the eggs, including reptiles. During the larval stage, the mealworm feeds on vegetation and dead insects  and molts between each larval stage., or instar (9 to 20 instar). After the final molt it becomes a pupa. The new pupa is whitish, and it turns brown over time. After 3 to 30 days, depending on environmental conditions such as temperature, it emerges as an adult beetle.

Mealworms have historically been consumed in many Asian countries, particularly in Southeast Asia. They are commonly  found in food markets, and sold as street food alongside other edible insects. Baked or fried mealworms have been marketed as a healthy snack food in recent history, though the consumption of mealworms goes back centuries. They may be easily reared on fresh oats, wheat  bran, with slices of potato, carrot, or apple as a moisture source. The small amount of space required to raise mealworms has made them popular in many parts of Southeast Asia.

The insect’s main components are protein, fat and fibre, offering a potentially sustainable and low carbon-emission source of food for the future. When dried, larvae is said to taste a lot like peanuts.

Insects-for-food Industry

The leading players in the insects-as-food industry have been held-back by a lack of EU-wide approval. The products are prohibited from sale in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, among other European countries. Without approval from the Food Safety Agency, they faced being banned  elsewhere on the continent too. The UK, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Finland, have previously take a permissive approach to an EU law that requires food not eaten before 1997 to obtain novel food authorisation from Brussels. British, Dutch, Belgian and Finnish regulators had decided the EU directive did not pertain to animals products used for food. But in 2018 a new EU law sought to bring some clarity. It stipulated that insect-based dishes would require novel food authorisation, putting the nascent insect-food industry on a weak footing.

Cricket is a popular insect-food

The products have remained available in those countries as a result of a transition period to allow companies already producing food from insects to operate until they receive the final judgement.   

Insect-based food has long been seen as a part of the solution to cutting the emission of greenhouse gases in food production. Guardian quoted Mario Mazzocchi, professor at the University of Bologna: “ There are clean environmental and economic benefits if you substitute traditional sources of proteins with those that require less feed, produce less waste and result in fewer greenhouse gas  emission. Lower costs and prices could enhance food security and new demand will open economic opportunities too, but these could also affect existing sectors.”   

Giovanai Sogari, a social and consumer researcher at the University of Parma, said the squearmishness of many consumers towards insect-originated food product may eventually fall away. “There are cognitive reasons derived from our social and cultural experiences-the so-called ‘yuck factor’ – that make the thought of eating insects repellent to many Europeans,” he said. “With time and exposure, such attitudes can change.”

Insect-As- Food Companies

Our research shows there are a number of insect-as-food companies based in Europe and in other countries. They include:

No.CompanyCountryInsectProducts
1MicronutrisFranceYellow mealworms and cricketsSnacks
2AgronutrisFranceCrickets, yellow mealworms and black soldier flyAnimal feeds
3ProtifarmNetherlandsBuffalo beetlesFood ingredients
4EssentoSwitzerlandYellow mealworms, grasshoppers and cricketsSnacks and protein bars
5EntogourmetSpainCricketsPower, dried and frozen
6AgriproteinUKBlack soldier flyAnimal feeds

A long list of insect-as-food companies and entrepreneurs is found on www.bugburger.se. Thailand has the most established insect-as-food industry. It covers insect farms, insect processing  companies, and substantial market of insect-eating consumers. In my country Malaysia, the insect-as-food industry has a small potential due to a large population of Muslims in the country. Insects are considered as non-permissible foods.  

Economic Matters for Innovators

Innovators who own start-ups can now go public via SPACs

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Virgin Galactic, owned by Sir Richard Branson, merged with SPAC Social Capital Hesdosophia

We begin 2021 with an article on a new alternative source of capital for innovators.    

The first topic of the new year is on SPAC, special-vehicle acquisition company. In the US innovators have taken their companies public by merging with SPACs.

Through SPAC owners of start-ups have a different, perfectly legal approach to promoting their companies to investors. The approach includes interviews with obscure YouTube channels which are frequented by individual traders, appearance on cable news, and projections that call for billions of revenue.

Publicity and forecasts of rapid growth have become routine  of an Initial Public Offering (IPO) of  going public through SPACs. The use of what are called blank-cheque companies, which go public with assets and then merge with private companies increased in 2020. SPACs have raised a record  US$62.1 billion as compared to US$$13.5 billion in 2019, according to Wall Street Journal on January 3rd, 2021.

Companies that went public through SPACs, including many nascent firms  with no revenue, have said that they were attracted to the relative speed and certainty of the process, which can be completed months faster than some traditional IPOs.

In the case of IPOs, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires company executives  to stay in a quiet period during weeks  around public listing. Regulators don’t want companies to be marketing their stocks to unsophisticated investors outside of a regimented process. Similarly, companies don’t include projections in the IPO documents because of regulations that put them at high risk for litigation if they miss these plans.

Companies that go public through SPACs face fewer constraints because the deals are considered  mergers. The Wall Street Journal article quoted an example, Fisker Inc. The company, an electric-vehicle start-up in July 2020 announced to go public by merging with a SPAC. Fisker has ambitious plans  but little in terms of product or revenue to show investors.  While it had about 50 employees, it disclosed projections to investors that called for it to hit US$13 billion in revenue in 2025, up from zero in 2020. The founder, Henrik Fisker, went on cable television repeatedly and remained prolific on social media. After the deal’s announcement-but before the merger was completed in late October 2020- Mr Fisker wrote on twitter about how the company was sold out of reservations  for the SUV it plans to build in 2022 and hinted about coming news before  a deal with a manufacturer was announced.

The Fisker spokesman  said that Mr Fisker was not marketing to individuals investors and that his interviews were included in regulatory filings to investors.  

SPACs offer a new avenue for start-ups to promote themselves as well as raise money in the US.. A SPAC’s most valuable asset, besides all the cash from investors, is arguably is its stock market listing. The company it invests in instantaneously becomes a public one, without many hassles that go along with a traditional IPO.

SPACs offer businesses and start-ups a surer deal-just take this money that had been raised by the sponsor of SPAC. In a world of low interest rate and high valuation on other stocks in the US, investors see SPACs as a reasonable place to park money for a while. A SPAC in the US  is typically structured so that an investor can get his/her money out if he/she doesn’t like the  deal a SPAC makes, and there us the chance that he/she will be getting early in next hot, growth company.

SPACs in the US have a time limit of 18 to 24 months to acquire businesses. According to BTIC.com, an investment advisory company, there are more than 210 SPACs seeking acquisition in the US.   Stockmarket.com provides a list more than 200 SPACs on its website. The major SPACs include :

  1. Draft Holdings
  2. Fisker Inc.
  3. Virgin Galactic
  4. Workhorse Group, and
  5. Repay Holdings

Note: Readers should be aware that the article is not a recommendation to buy a particular SPAC. It only highlights a new avenue for businesses to raise capital by merging with a SPAC.

Electric and Autonomous car

Let us have “roti canai” at the electric car forecourt

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Gridserve’s electric car forecourt

The first bespoke electric car forecourt was opened on December 7th, 2020, by Gridserve at Braintree, Essex, England. The capital of the county is Southend On Sea at which I studied at a local college in the 1970s. Designed by its CEO, Toddington Harper, the forecourt (which is categorically not a service station) is spacious and simple to negotiate both inside and out. There are 36 individual charge points, ranging in output from 7kW to 350 kW, which can  all be used simultaneously with no drop in output.

Electricity is generated by solar panels-mounted on the forecourt roof and a array of partners  solar farms s-and stored in a 6 mWh (6,000 kWh, or roughly enough for 26,000 miles EV range) on-site battery, which can balance the grid in peak hours, helping to keep  charging costs down.

Users just pay just 24p per kWh to charge at the site, making it cheaper than any other “ultra-high-speed” charging provider in England. In term of market competitors,  Gridserve’s  charging facilities essentially sit in  class one-for now, at least. Other energy providers  operate banks of chargers at busy locations but usually as part of a larger service or fuel station designed for ICE cars.

The forecourt offers super-fast wifi, and stands alongside of a range of retail outlets including  WH Smith, and Booths, as well as Costa Coffee, and the Post office. Future forecourts will offer business meeting pods, a children’s play centre and a “wellbeing area” with exercise bikes that generate electricity. .

The standard rate of 24p per kWh, which beats the current lowest ultra-high charging rates in England. This mean a typical charge for an average electric vehicle-from 20 per cent charged to 80 per cent-would costs £10.

If the concept of the forecourt is copied in  Malaysia, Malaysians will charge their electric vehicles while having “roti canai”, a favourite pancake, or “nasi lemak” , a meal of rice with other condiments. The combinations of meals and coffee are many. And no more smell of nauseating gasoline.

As a new chemical engineer, I joined ESSO (now EXXON MOBIL) because the oil industry  was the largest industry in the 1980s, and ESSO was the largest company in the world.  Today, these oil companies are laggards as compared to the FAANG. Who could predict this in the 1980s when I joined the oil industry.

Visit gridserve.com for more information.

Electric and Autonomous car

Toyota Prius owners beware: Exhaust system attracts thieves

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Catalytic converter of Toyota Prius is popular with UK thieves

The London Time s article on 21st November 2020 reported that the thefts of catalytic converters  have increased significantly  recently. The police had logged in 14,690 incidents  across Britain this  year, a rise from 2,484 a year earlier and 985 the year before. The rise is believed t have ben driven by  a steep rise in the use of precious metals  in catalytic converters. It has also been linked  to the  growth in popularity of hybrid cars, which tend to contain higher concentration of the precious of the precious metals, and 4 x 4s, whose higher chassis make is make easier for thieves. Criminals can remove the catalytic converter of car in less than a minute using an electric saw.  

Precious metals in catalytic converters

A catalytic converter is a device used to convert toxic vehicle emissions to less toxic harmful substances by way of catalyzed, or accelerated chemical reactions. Most present-day vehicles that run on gasoline, including automobiles,  trucks, trains, motorcycles and planes, have exhaust systems employing catalytic converters. The catalyst component of a catalytic converter is usually  platinum (Pt), along with palladium (Pd), and rhodium (Rh). All the three platinum group metal or PMG are extremely rare but  have a broad range of applications. In addition, to catalytic converter Platinum, for example, is used in laboratory and dental equipment, electrical contacts and electrodes, and jewellery, while Palladium plays a key role in fuel cell technology. With numerous applications, and limited supply these valuable metals are an attractive target for recovery and reuse from spent catalytic converters.

The amounts and proportions of PGMs depends on the age and type of vehicles.

  • Car, light trucks, and motorcycles average total 2-6 grammes.
  • Larger -engine SUVs and trucks average total can range anywhere from 6 -30 grammes.

Gasoline-powered -vehicle catalytic converters use all three of the rare-earth metals. Diesel-powered -vehicle catalytic converters use only platinum and rhodium.

The average concentration of and the ratio of Pt and Rh were more or less constant 20 years ago, so a simple weighting was sufficient to arrive at a good estimation of the precious metals content. However, the price of these three precious metals has fluctuated strongly over the last twenty years, depending on the supply, demand and speculation.

The Times London article noted that scrap metal dealers  can pay up to BP200 per catalytic converter. The table below the value of the precious metals compared to other metals such as gold and gold.

MetalBP in grammeBP in kilogramme
Gold45.4445,440
Silver0.50500
Platinum23.3626,360
Palladium56.9456,940
Rhodium363363,000
Note: BP means British Pound

Source: beleyerbullion.co.uk.

The supply and demand for PMGs

Johnson Matthey, which produces a third of all catalytic converters  in the world publishes the Pmg report annually. The latest report published in February 2020 shows the supply and demand situation in 2017, 2018 and 2919, respectively. 

Platinum in thousand oz

Supply201720182019
South Africa4,4504,4674,411
Russia720687667
Other969956942
Total supply6,1396,1106,020
Gross demand
Autocatalyst                3,2082,9672,913
Jewellery2,3872,2612,082
Industrial2,0382,4932,358
Investment361671,131
Total gross demand7,9947,7888,484
Recycling-2,049-2,098-2,261
Total net demand5,9455,6906,223
Movements in stocks194420-203

Palladium in thousand oz

Supply201720182019
South Africa2,5472,5432,648
Russia2,4522,9762,802
Other1,4521,4871,442
Total supply6,4517,0066,894
Gross demand
Autocatalyst                8,4628,7829,677
Jewellery167148140
Industrial1,8201,8481,742
Investment-386-574-57
Total gross demand10,06310,20411,502
Recycling-751-77-1,192
Total net demand7,2027,0838,086
Movements in stocks-751-77-1,192

Rhodium in thousand doz

Supply201720182019
South Africa611618621
Russia786959
Other707066
Total supply759757746
Gross demand
Autocatalyst                8348771,003
Other207165141
Total gross demand1,0411,0421,144
Recycling-310-335-372
Total net demand731707772
Movements in stocks2850-26

Conclusion

The prices of precious metals used in catalytic converters are likely to increase with the popularity of hybrid cars and newer efficient gasoline-cars. Their owners would have to be aware that the exhaust systems would be an open invitation to thieves, as their scrap values are high with every  increase in the price of platinum, palladium and rhodium.

Electric and Autonomous car

In the electric-car era, nickel is worth more than a dime

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A chunk of nickel

In the history of marketing, in 1940, Pepsi was credited with an advertising campaign called “twice as Much for a Nickel”. It was based on the fact that Coca Cola was sold in 6-ounce bottles and the new Pepsi bottles were 12 ounces.

 An article in Wall Street Journal, online edition, on October 27th, 2020, noted that nickel is becoming important to the production of electric-cars. Most of the raw materials required are the same as those used in conventional ones, but the metals that make up lithium-ion batteries are exceptions. Until recently, procurement worries and market speculation in the metal market tended to focus on lithium and cobalt. Now nickel has attracted the attention of senior executives of mining companies and Mr. Elon Musk, the CEO of the largest electric-car company.

Nickel is used to improve vehicle range. As a result, Nickel has become crucial in the chemistry of cathodes. One standard form of cathode – the most valuable part of an automotive –grade lithium-ion battery – used to contain equal parts of nickel, cobalt and manganese. Now, it has eight parts of nickel to each one of the two metals. This trend, together with the growth of electric-car sales, promises to increase nickel demand.  

However, the article noted that investors should not rush to pile up on nickel stocks yet.

Batteries still do not consume a lot of nickel. It is mostly used in the making of stainless steel.  Depending on the future sales of electric-cars, a step-change in the demand of nickel will likely occur in the late 2020s. Until then, the kind of supply constraint once expected in the much smaller markets for cobalt and lithium—which don’t have major alternative uses-is hard to imagine.

Meanwhile, the nickel market has become oversupplied as growth in China, the big stainless steel market, has slowed.  The experiences of cobalt and lithium offer warnings too. Speculation about demand from electric-cars pushed their prices in 2017. However, the prices of these two metals have collapsed.  

Stainless steel uses a lot of nickel

The article noted that nickel will be harder for battery chemists to work around than cobalt if they need to, but perhaps not impossible. Battery technology is still developing. Tesla is turning to lithium iron phosphates, which don’t contain nickel, as a solution for cheaper electric cars in China.

According to evergen.com.au, lithium-ion has a higher energy density at 150/200 Wh/kg versus lithium iron phosphates at 90/120 Wh/kg. So, lithium-ion is normally the go-to-source for power hungry electronics that drain batteries at a high rate. On the other hand, the discharge rate for lithium iron phosphates outmatches lithium-ion.

An eventual nickel shortage can’t be rule out. Once batteries are cheaper than engines-UBS, the investment bank, expects the turning point in 2024—demand for electric vehicles could accelerate fast. Producing the kind of high-purity nickel required for batteries to high environmental standards is complex and projects take years to take off the ground.

Then, nickel would be worth more than a dime, US 10 cents.

Must-Read Reports

Deadly facts about Covid-19 virus

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Horseshoe bat habours many coronaviruses

Everyone is affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. For us in Malaysia, large gatherings for wedding are out. Mosque attendance is limited by number. Masks are required to enter premises.

We noted an interesting article written by Robert Lee Hortz and Natasha Khan about deadly facts of Covid-19 virus on September 8th, 2020, in Wall Street Journal online.

They likened the Covid-19 virus as a killer with a crowbar, breaking and entering human cells with impunity. It hitchhikes across continents carried on coughs and unclean hands, driven by its own necessity to survive. Cheap and modern travels make it easy for Covid-19 virus to spread to frequent fliers.

Initially, it was believed that the virus lives in horseshoe bats, which habour hundreds of different kinds of coronavirus. Then it moves to a new animal species (human).  A professor at the University of Hong King, Yuen Kwok Yung, who studied SARS outbreak in 20023, showed that 39 per cent of Chinese horseshoe bats could be harbouring SARS-related coronaviruses.

Why bats?

He noted that bats’ cells can survive surges  in metabolism that their hearts can go from 10 beats a minute during hibernation to 1,000 beats a minute in flight.  It is thought their constitution makes them ideally suited to be reservoir where a virus can stay, biding its time before jumping to another host species, an event known as a spillover.  

Even with a spillover, a virus that jumps to a new species doesn’t always spread. Some like avian flu, an influenza originally in birds that can infect humans, largely stops with the new host and don’t move from human to human. According to the article, there are more viruses than stars in the known universe. Trillions upon trillions of virus float in the air and ride the clouds. Scientists at the University of British Columbia, Canada, estimate that 800 million viruses rain onto every square metre of our planet every day. A coronavirus itself is so small that 500 of them could fit within the diameter of a human hair.

Many scientists can’t decide whether a virus is actually alive in any conventional sense. Viruses lead a kind of borrowed life, chemists say. They are a sub-microscopic essence of the need to reproduce that by nature is at cross-purposes with humankind.

“Viruses don’t think. They don’t have desires, “ said Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen.

In the absence of desire, they have purpose: to spread, multiply  and survive.    

Covid-19 virus                                                                                          

There are at least 320,000 different viruses that infect mammals. About 219 species are known to be able to infect humans. The article noted that one researcher found more than a hundred different viruses living inside human lungs. At least six other types of coronavirus are known to infect humans. Several cause the common cold. SARS-CoV-2 isn’t the first virus to have its impact broadened by travels. Smallpox, which killed 300 million people or more in the 20th century alone, first traversed the world by sailing ships with the Vikings a thousand years ago, new research into the history of epidemics suggests.

The coronavirus belongs to a category of viruses that work by transmitting chemical code, called RNA, which is sealed in a protective protein envelope. RNA is a nucleic acid present in all living cells that usually acts as a messenger to relay genetic instructions in DNA, telling the cells what to do. Once the virus gets inside a host cell, it seizes the cell’s reproductive machinery.

Without that maneuver, the coronavirus is impotent. It could never reproduce and churn out the millions of new virus cells in a spreading infection. When it kills, it is almost out of carelessness. Its own survival depends on sparing its victims as vehicles for its propagation.

While estimates vary, SARS-CoV-2 appears to kill about 0.6 per cent of the people it infects—six times that of a typical flue. By comparison, two other human coronaviruses are far more lethal but harder to contract. SARS-CoV, the original  SARS in the 2003 outbreak, has a case fatality of 9.6 per cent, while MERS, which stands for Middle East respiratory syndrome, which was reported in 2012, has an even higher case fatality rate of 34 per cent.

The current coronavirus causes serious symptoms in many of its victims. The effects are severe in approximately 20 per cent of the people it afflicts, according to David Hui, a respiratory expert of the Chinese University of Hong  Kong. Investigators realized that SARS-CoV-2 usually seeks out type II lung cells in the people it hijacks. These coat membranes lining the nose, throat and sinuses, and deep into the lungs. The coronavirus pries the cell open with a molecular structure called a spike protein that it uses like a crowbar to force entry.

In images that scientists made to study it, the round virus bristles with spikes. The spike protein locks onto a receptor called the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE 2, which typically regulates a protein that increases blood pressure and inflammation. The receptors seem to be more numerous among older people and generally higher among men than women.

Once inside a human cell, the new coronavirus has a rare ability to silence alarms that would normally alert the immune system to mobilize antibodies and virus-killing cells, according to microbiologists at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, USA.

Confusing complications

Doctors who first encountered it diagnosed it as a respiratory virus. They looked for symptoms of fever, coughs and shortages of breadth. But Covid-19 virus triggered  bewildering complications.

People complained of nausea or diarrhea. Some had arrhythmias or even heart attacks. Some suffered kidney damage or liver failure. Some lost their sense of smell or taste. Other patients turned up at clinics with blood clots or swollen purple bumps on their toes.

 In most countries where the virus triggered an outbreak, it sent people to the hospital with delirium, blackouts, brain inflammation or strokes.

The virus has infected millions of people who never got sick or were only mildly ill, which allowed it to reproduce while its victims spread it in ever-widening social circles.

The virus’s own internal chemistry alone wasn’t enough to account for so much variations of symptoms, severity and deaths.

Variations of contributing causes

There are many possible contributing causes: old age, gender, underlying chronic diseases such as  diabetes, lack of healthcare and poor diet. Investigators also turned their attention to gene variations that make some uniquely vulnerable.

“The immune system in people is as diverse as beauty, height, intelligence and any other human feature, “ said molecular immunologist  Michel Nussenzweig at Rockefeller University in New York, US. “Not everybody is the same in their ability to fight infection.”

At Rockefeller and New York Genome Center, scientists are comparing the entire genomes of those most severely affected by the virus to those who experience only mild symptoms—and then to the coronavirus itself.

These scientists extract the virus from the nose swab mucus collected from the people it infected and, through high-speed genome sequencers, reduce it to biochemical code for analysis.  Some are samples drawn from people who suffered no more than a fever and a cough. Others come from autopsies.

The bad news is that the virus is evolving

The four bases of virus RNA are written in an alphabet composed of nucleotide chemicals: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and uracil (U). In its rush to make new copies of itself, the virus is prone to random errors.

“The virus changes on a fairly clockwork basis, “ said computational biologist Michael Zody at the genome centre. “ Every two weeks or so, it seems that the virus picks up a new mutation.”

That adds up about 25 random changes a year, much less than the seasonal flu, which has a mutation rate of almost 50 mutations a year. Most of the changes in the coronavirus don’t make any difference now. In time, it is possible that some might make it easier to transmit from person to person or become deadlier.

Recently, researchers led by biologist Bette Korber at Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, US, identified a small change in the 30,000 chemical characters of the coronavirus. In a section of the code that affects its spike protein, a single “A” had turned to “G”. That version has become more common in almost every country, compared with the original version that first arose in Wuhan, China. It may have outcompeted the original  strain, but may not be making patients any sicker, scientists said.

That is the only good news.

The article quoted Emma Hodcroft at the University of Basel, Switzerland. “Any of these mutations could functionally make the virus different. But this virus is young and we haven’t seen any evidence of this happening yet. It’s only been in humans a few months, and it’s doing very well.”

The coronavirus pandemic will be with us for a long time. Innovators from drug developers, medical equipment engineers, test kit biochemists, architects and telecommunication companies need to come out with novel solutions to combat this new coronavirus, and new ones that could emerge in the future.