At the end of September, the Volkswagen Group issued a call for long-term contracts with cobalt producers. Cobalt is a key component of lithium-ion batteries built for electric vehicles (EVs), and VW Group’s call indicated the company stepped up its pledge to focus on EVs in the wake of the company’s diesel emissions scandal.
But in mid-October, the Financial times reported that VW Group’s rapprochement had failed and the company was unable to find a company to contract with. Reportedly, the prices that VW Group offered for cobalt were too low and the German carmaker wanted to agree on a fixed price for the duration of the contract – at a time when cobalt prices were rising.
VW Group’s failure to land a contract revealed a lurking problem with lithium-ion batteries: their development and mass production can be delayed and complicated by materials other than lithium. And because there aren’t always great alternatives to the lightweight, energy-dense materials that make up these batteries, researchers are concerned about supply chains for the materials that drive innovation. Do we have enough lithium? And are we tired of the secondary materials that make lithium-ion batteries work, such as cobalt, nickel, manganese and, of course, graphite?
Researchers from MIT, Berkeley and Rochester Institute of Technology attempted to answer these questions in a recent paper by looking at potential threats to the supply chains of lithium-ion battery components. While most of the materials used in these modern batteries are not at risk of significant supply shocks and are unlikely to have problems meeting future demand, the exceptions are cobalt, a cathode material that helps extend battery life and cycle ability. to extend. lithium-ion batteries and, to a lesser extent, lithium itself.
Cobalt, the researchers say, is a real problem. The mineral is primarily a by-product of nickel and copper mining, but 50 to 60 percent of the world’s cobalt supply currently comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) because of the high-quality ore found in that country. But in the DRC, political strife can easily disrupt the cobalt market. (There are also ethical issues with mining operations in the DRC: UNICEF and Amnesty International estimate that 40,000 children are involved in cobalt mining in that country.) If the DRC is unable to adequately meet demand, it could “significantly cause price volatility”. and uncertainty about commodity prices,” the researchers write.
And any disruptions to the cobalt price could have a significant effect on battery-dependent technology, especially electric vehicles. Electric vehicle manufacturers prefer lithium-ion batteries with cobalt because of their high energy density, and about 50 percent of all cobalt produced ends up in rechargeable batteries, according to the Cobalt Institute.
But what about lithium?
For lithium, the problem is not that the material is hard to come by, but that the short-term supply may not be able to meet the explosive demand until 2025. Ultimately, however, the relative abundance of lithium around the world suggests that medium-term and long term, the demand for lithium will be met. The researchers write that “the challenges of Li [lithium] production is not whether there is enough material, but whether production can be increased quickly enough. Just looking at whether supply and demand meet does not provide insight into this tariff problem.” Demand for lithium-ion batteries rose 73 percent from 2010 to 2014, the researchers write, but production grew only 28 percent.
Still, researchers aren’t overly concerned about lithium supply, as there is evidence that suppliers are gearing up to enter the market and meet that demand. “[B]based on the diversity of offerings and the significant attention this topic has received, many companies are able to respond relatively quickly to disruptions,” notes the newspaper. If there is a supply shock, it will not last long. That’s good, because the researchers also noted that in a supply shock, the demand for lithium is unlikely to be met by recycling. Batteries have a long life before their components can be reused, and there is not currently a sufficient supply of waste batteries to be economically recycled by a supplier. (Recycling lithium is also still quite expensive compared to extracting new lithium.)
A word about natural graphite
The researchers also note that natural graphite, a component used in the anodes of lithium-ion batteries, has a high concentration from one country (China) like cobalt. But they shrug at the urgency of supply disruptions. First, the Chinese government is more stable than that of the DRC. But natural graphite is also relatively common in the earth’s crust. If necessary, we can also produce synthetic graphite, although it is more expensive.
Simply knowing which raw materials could threaten the explosion of electric vehicles and other battery-dependent technology is a first step to avoiding that threat. The supply of cobalt is a concern, but the silver lining is that cobalt can be replaced with lithium-ion batteries, usually with a combination of nickel, aluminum or manganese. Although cobalt is the secondary material of choice in lithium-ion batteries today, the authors of the Joules paper recommends further research on cobalt-free cathode materials.
Joules2017. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joule.2017.08.019 (About DOIs).