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 made for electric vehicles (EVs), and VW Group’s call shows that the company is increasing its commitment to focus on EVs in the wake of the domestic diesel emissions scandal. – the job.
But by mid-October, the Money Times reported that VW Group’s overtures have failed, and the company cannot find a home to contract with. Reportedly, the prices VW Group is offering for cobalt are very low, and the German automaker wants to agree on a fixed price for the duration of the contract—at a time when cobalt prices are rising.
VW Group’s failure to protect a contract exposes a lurking problem with lithium-based batteries-that is, the development and mass production of which they can be held up and complicated by materials other than lithium. And because there aren’t always great alternatives for the lightweight, energy-dense materials that make up these batteries, researchers worry about supply chains for the materials that drive innovation. Do we have enough lithium? And do we have enough secondary materials that make lithium-ion batteries work, like cobalt, nickel, manganese, and natural graphite?
Researchers from MIT, Berkeley, and the Rochester Institute of Technology tried to answer these questions a recent book by looking at potential threats to the supply chains of components in lithium-ion batteries. Although most of the materials used in today’s batteries are not in any danger of suffering major shocks to supply and will probably not have trouble meeting future demand, the exceptions are cobalt, the cathode material that help extend the life and cycling capacity of lithium-ion batteries and, to a lesser extent, lithium itself.
Cobalt, researchers say, is a real issue. The country’s primary mineral resources are nickel and copper mining, but 50 to 60 percent of the world’s cobalt supply currently comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) due to the country’s high mineral content. But in the DRC, Political fighting can easily stop cobalt market. (There are ethical issues with the DRC’s mining operations, also: UNICEF and Amnesty International estimated that 40,000 children are involved in cobalt mining in that country.) If the DRC cannot meet demand, that could “create significant price volatility and market price uncertainty,” the researchers wrote.
And any disruption in the cost of cobalt could have a significant impact on technology that relies on batteries, especially electric cars. Electric vehicle manufacturers favor lithium-ion batteries with cobalt for 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 issue is not that the material is hard to find but that the near-term supply may not be able to meet the explosive demand out to 2025. Ultimately, though, the relative abundance of lithium around the world suggests that the medium- and long-term , lithium demand will be met. The researchers wrote that “the challenges of producing Li (lithium) are not whether there is enough material, but whether the production can be done fast enough. Analyzing whether supply meets demand does not provide insight into this rate problem. ” Demand for lithium-ion batteries increased 73 percent between 2010 and 2014, the researchers wrote, but production only grew by 28 percent.
However, researchers are not too worried about lithium supply because there is evidence that suppliers are preparing to enter the market and meet that demand. “(B) based on the diversity of provision and the critical attention this topic has received, many companies are in a position to respond quickly to disruptions,” the paper notes. If there is a supply shock, it won’t be too long. That’s good because researchers also note that in the event of a supply shock, lithium demand is unlikely to be met through recycling. Batteries have long lifetimes before their components can be recycled, and there is currently no large stockpile of scrap batteries that a manufacturer can recycle economically. (Lithium recycling is also still pretty expensive compared to new lithium extraction.)
A word about natural graphite
The researchers also noted that natural graphite, a component used in the anodes of lithium-ion batteries, has a high concentration of supply that comes from one country (China), just like cobalt. But they immediately get rid of supply interruptions. For one, China’s government is more stable than DRC’s. But natural graphite is also abundant throughout the Earth’s crust. We are also able to produce synthetic lead if necessary, although it is more expensive.
Simply knowing which raw materials can threaten the explosion of electric vehicles and battery-dependent technology is the first step to prevent that threat. Cobalt supply is a concern, but the silver lining is that cobalt can be substituted from lithium-ion batteries, often with a combination of nickel, aluminum, or manganese. Although cobalt is the preferred secondary material in today’s lithium-ion batteries, the authors of Joule paper recommends continued research into cobalt-free cathode materials.