Free Access Articles, Technology ,

IN THE race towards the electrification of transport, it appears a lot of things – including finding enough special metals to make batteries and even making enough electricity to charge those batteries – are heading for some serious pitfalls.

Battery demand for EVs, hybrids and plug-in hybrids is booming. Global number-cruncher Statisca says that in 2020, the global demand for EV batteries was 110 gigawatt hours.

“This value is expected to increase drastically on a global scale, with a predicted demand of 6530 gigawatt hours in 2050, which is about 600 times the value at the beginning of the forecast period,” it said.

It is the metals that make up the batteries, and also the electric motors, that is becoming the sticking point as demand for EVs is expected to race ahead of supply.

These metals are predominantly cobalt and lithium. The good news is that both have good reserves around the world and both are recyclable.

The bad news is that the actual mineable resources are weak and, in the case of cobalt, contained predominantly in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that has been plagued by poor worker conditions, use of child labour and more recently, by China buying the larger producers.

An example of renewed interest in cobalt is that China Molybdenum last year bought a 95 per cent share in the Kisanfu copper-cobalt project in the DRC for $US550 million ($A711 million). In 2016, the seller, Freeport, had tried unsuccessfully to sell the project for $US50m ($A65m).

Cobalt is a by-product of nickel and copper mines and to a degree relies on those sister metals for future mine viability.

The price of cobalt is now around $US20 ($A26) a pound. In May 2018, it was $US43/lb ($A56/lb) as the EV and mobile phone businesses ramped up. It is predicted that within 20 years, cobalt will be about $US30/lb ($A39/lb).

But though the price of cobalt appears attractive in the long term, the concern is that batteries for EVs will require 1000 times more cobalt than batteries for mobile phones and other electronic equipment – and it is the supply of cobalt that is the issue.

Cobalt is used in the battery cathode to provide stability and to maintain the battery’s cycle life. It also is less likely to ignite than some alternative metals.

The metal has alternatives – manganese is the current favourite – and Tesla is one battery-maker leading the charge to significantly reducing cobalt in batteries to save on cost.

Cathodes with nickel-manganese-cobalt chemistries (NCA) with ratios of eight parts nickel to one part cobalt and one part aluminium (NMC 811) are expected to be the battery of choice for EV-makers going forward. Tesla has for the past year supplied a portion of its new EVs made in China with lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, using no cobalt.

One Tesla Model S has batteries that contain about 4.5kg of cobalt, according to analysts Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

The second metal of importance is lithium. It is crucial in most electrification products because it is at the core of lithium-ion batteries used in EVs.

The good news is that it’s everywhere but it is in varying degrees of quality and location. Australia is the biggest supplier to the world lithium markets.

Car-makers including Toyota and Mitsubishi have invested directly in lithium mines around the world because they realise that unlike cobalt, there is no substitute for lithium and it is expected to remain the foundation of all lithium-ion EV battery chemistries for the foreseeable future.

As an example of how much is needed, one Tesla S with a 70kWh battery uses 63kg of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE). LCE is the standard industry measure of lithium production which includes lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide, both used in EV batteries.

Lithium carbonate prices are currently at a high of $US12,600 ($A16,300) a tonne, the same as the record high achieved in August 2018. The outlook by Benchmark Mineral Intelligence is that the price is expected to continue as demand is close to outstripping supply and mines in Chile could be threatened by political changes.

Copper is also used in an EV’s electric motor and wiring and there’s four times more copper in an EV as a conventional ICE car. Copper is also vital for public charging stations.

Consultancy Wood Mackenzie estimates that by 2030 there will be more than 20 million residential EV charging stations requiring 250 per cent more copper while one of the world’s biggest public charging station makers is targeting a 50-fold increase by 2025.

Nickel is necessary because it provides the energy density that gives the battery its power and range. Increasing the amount of nickel in a battery cathode increases its power and range.

It is used in both of the dominant battery types for EVs, the nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) battery used in the Nissan Leaf and BMW i3, and the nickel-cobalt-aluminium (NCA) battery manufactured by Panasonic/Tesla.

As pressure mounts for battery and EV makers to grapple for available metal supplies, it’s interesting to look at what Toyota is doing.

It is poised to produce an EV city car – for Europe – but aside from the fuel-cell Mirai, the brand has not been a strong producer of EVs.

It has also previously shied away from using lithium-ion batteries, preferring the more conservative (and large and heavy) nickel-metal-hydride for its hybrids.

The reason appears to be that Toyota can use the same raw materials to make up to 25 batteries for its hybrids as is needed for one battery for an EV. More cars for the same amount of raw battery metals? No brainer.

By Neil Dowling

Dealer Auction
VACC
Schmick