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Global shortage of battery minerals: Solution approaches to mitigate the threat stalling the electric vehicle growth

Introduction

The world is at a critical juncture in the pursuit of sustainable transportation. Electric vehicles (EVs) offer a promising solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. However, a major roadblock stands in the way of their widespread adoption – the global shortage of battery minerals. As the demand for EVs surges, so does the need for critical minerals like lithium, cobalt, and nickel, essential for battery production. In this article, we explore the challenges posed by the mineral shortage and the solution approaches to mitigate this threat, accelerating the growth of electric vehicles.

 

The world is shifting to electric vehicles to mitigate climate change.  By 2040 it is estimated that there will be 56 million annual electric vehicle (EV) sales and  requirement of  1095 gigawatts of battery energy storage systems in the world. Batteries are also critical for military missions since mission success and soldiers’ lives often depend directly on a military battery’s performance.  The expected improvements in energy density may enable advances in directed energy weapons, increase the loiter time of unmanned vehicles, lead to more effective sensors, and reduce the size and weight of man portable systems.

 

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries (LIB) have been workhorse of  the consumer electronics market including portable electronics, implantable devices, power tools, and hybrid/full electric vehicles (EVs) due to their ability to store large amounts of energy per unit weight and per unit volume, low self-discharge rate, long cycle life.  They are also relatively maintenance-free and contain fewer toxic chemicals than other batteries.

 

However, the availability of electric-vehicle batteries and other parts critically depend on the availability of Copper, nickel, cobalt, lithium and related minerals.

 

Typical automotive LIBs contain lithium (Li), cobalt (Co), and nickel (Ni) in the cathode, graphite in the anode, as well as aluminum and copper in other cell and pack components. Commonly used LIB cathode chemistries are lithium nickel cobalt manganese oxide (NCM), lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide (NCA), or lithium iron phosphate (LFP), although battery technology is currently evolving fast and new and improved chemistries can be expected in the future.

 

The Global Shortage of Battery Minerals: An Overview

The soaring popularity of EVs has led to an unprecedented demand for battery minerals, critical components in lithium-ion batteries, the backbone of EV technology. However, the scarcity of these minerals is limiting the production capacity and driving up costs. The most critical minerals facing shortages include:

 

  1. Lithium: A key component in lithium-ion batteries, lithium is crucial for storing and releasing electrical energy efficiently.
  2. Cobalt: Despite being a scarce mineral, cobalt is used in cathodes to enhance battery performance and stability.
  3. Nickel: High-nickel cathodes, such as NMC and NCA, improve energy density and EV driving range, increasing the demand for nickel.

Researchers have found that in a lithium nickel cobalt manganese oxide dominated battery scenario, demand is estimated to increase by factors of 18–20 for lithium, 17–19 for cobalt, 28–31 for nickel, and 15–20 for most other materials from 2020 to 2050, requiring a drastic expansion of lithium, cobalt, and nickel supply chains and likely additional resource discovery.

 

Given the magnitude of the battery material demand growth across all scenarios, global production capacity for Li, Co, and Ni  will have to increase drastically. For Li and Co, demand could outgrow current production capacities even before 2025. For Ni, the situation appears to be less dramatic, although by 2040 EV batteries alone could consume as much as the global primary Ni production in 2019

 

Demand for lithium-ion batteries is skyrocketing as electric vehicles become more common. Greater use of electric vehicles is good news for the climate. But supplies of the metals needed to build battery cells are already stretched thin, and demand for lithium could increase 20 times by 2050.

 

Due to the fast growth of the EV market, concerns over the sustainable supply of battery materials have been voiced. These include supply risks due to high geopolitical concentrations of cobalt and social and environmental impacts associated with mining, as well as the availability of cobalt and lithium reserves and the required rapid upscaling of supply chains to meet expected demand

 

Tesla Inc expects global shortages of nickel, copper and other electric-vehicle battery minerals down the road due to underinvestment in the mining sector, the company’s global supply manager for battery metals told an industry conference in May 2019. “Lithium is now featured at the top of the United States government’s Critical Minerals List, showing its geopolitical importance,” cites EnergyX founder and CEO Teague Egan. “Lithium is arguably the new oil, the single most important and valuable economic commodity for the 21st century.”

 

After a year that may be in time seen as the tipping point for electric vehicle adoption, the price of battery raw materials began to rally sharply in December. Benchmark Mineral Intelligence said in a recent note price data it collected in December 2020 show increases for lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite, driven largely by the Chinese market. Prices for lithium carbonate at the factory gate jumped by just under 13%, while ex-works cobalt sulphate and nickel sulphate increased by 3.2% and 6.4% respectively. Graphite (-100, 90-93% C, FOB China) climbed by 13.2%.

 

Benchmark’s Managing Director, Simon Moores said “for this suite of battery raw materials, China acts as an early warning system for the rest of the world.” “Historically, price rises that occur in China are usually experienced in the rest of the world three to six months months later.”

 

Solution Approaches to Mitigate the Threat

Solution Approaches to Mitigate the Threat

  1. Diversifying Sources of Battery Minerals

To address the mineral shortage, it is imperative to diversify the sources of battery minerals. Deep-sea mining, urban mining, and recycling electronic waste are potential solutions to supplement traditional mining. Exploring untapped resources in various regions can reduce reliance on limited sources and enhance the security of the supply chain.

  1. Promoting Responsible Mining Practices

Responsible mining practices are essential to minimize environmental impact and social implications. Governments, industries, and civil society must collaborate to enforce strict regulations and ethical standards in mining operations. This includes safeguarding ecosystems, ensuring fair labor practices, and respecting the rights of local communities.

  1. Investing in Recycling Technologies

Recycling technologies offer a sustainable solution to recover valuable minerals from used batteries. Establishing advanced recycling facilities will not only reduce reliance on primary mining but also minimize the environmental burden of battery waste. Governments and industries should incentivize battery recycling and create a closed-loop system for critical minerals.

  1. Research and Development in Alternative Chemistries

Innovations in battery technology can lead to alternative chemistries that reduce the dependency on scarce minerals. Solid-state batteries, lithium-sulfur batteries, and other advanced alternatives hold promise for more efficient, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective energy storage solutions.

  1. Supply Chain Transparency and Traceability

Implementing supply chain transparency using blockchain technology can ensure ethical sourcing and traceability of battery minerals. This level of transparency will foster trust among consumers and stakeholders and help curb unethical practices in the mineral supply chain.

For more detailed treatment of the issue of Battery mineral shortages please visit: Powering the Electric Revolution: Addressing the Global Shortage of Battery Minerals

 

Diversifying Sources of Battery Minerals

To address the mineral shortage, it is imperative to diversify the sources of battery minerals. Deep-sea mining, urban mining, and recycling electronic waste are potential solutions to supplement traditional mining. Exploring untapped resources in various regions can reduce reliance on limited sources and enhance the security of the supply chain.

Promoting Responsible Mining Practices

Responsible mining practices are essential to minimize environmental impact and social implications. Governments, industries, and civil society must collaborate to enforce strict regulations and ethical standards in mining operations. This includes safeguarding ecosystems, ensuring fair labor practices, and respecting the rights of local communities.

Investing in Recycling Technologies

Recycling technologies offer a sustainable solution to recover valuable minerals from used batteries. Establishing advanced recycling facilities will not only reduce reliance on primary mining but also minimize the environmental burden of battery waste. Governments and industries should incentivize battery recycling and create a closed-loop system for critical minerals.

Research and Development in Alternative Chemistries

Innovations in battery technology can lead to alternative chemistries that reduce the dependency on scarce minerals. Solid-state batteries, lithium-sulfur batteries, and other advanced alternatives hold promise for more efficient, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective energy storage solutions.

Sweden’s Northvolt makes breakthrough in sodium-ion battery technology

In a groundbreaking development, Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt has achieved a significant breakthrough in sodium-ion battery technology. This innovation represents a departure from conventional batteries, as it eliminates the need for lithium, cobalt, or nickel in its composition. The strategic absence of these materials holds the potential to reduce global dependence on China, a dominant force in the critical material supply chains crucial to the energy transition.

The technology is based on a hard carbon anode and a Prussian White-based cathode, and is free from lithium, nickel, cobalt and graphite. Prussian White is a material used in the positive electrode of sodium-ion batteries, preferred for its low cost and high sustainability. Northvolt plans to be the first company to industrialise Prussian White-based batteries and bring them to commercial markets.

The batteries’ energy density stands at more than 160 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg) compared with an average energy density of 200–300Wh/kg for a lithium-ion battery. This figure can vary significantly depending on the chemistries used.

This breakthrough aligns with the broader industry trend of seeking alternatives to traditional lithium-ion batteries, addressing concerns related to the environmental and geopolitical challenges associated with the production and supply of key battery components. Northvolt’s sodium-ion technology could mark a pivotal shift in the energy storage landscape, offering a more sustainable and geopolitically independent solution.

Supply Chain Transparency and Traceability

Implementing supply chain transparency using blockchain technology can ensure ethical sourcing and traceability of battery minerals. This level of transparency will foster trust among consumers and stakeholders and help curb unethical practices in the mineral supply chain.

 

Alternative Battery technologies

The increasing demand for batteries, particularly for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage, has led to concerns about a potential shortage of materials for traditional battery technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries.

To address this challenge, researchers are exploring alternative battery technologies that rely on more abundant materials. Here are some examples of alternative battery technologies:

  1. Zinc-air batteries: These batteries use zinc and oxygen to generate electricity. They are lightweight and have a high energy density, making them a good option for electric vehicles and other applications.
  2. Sodium-ion batteries: These batteries use sodium ions instead of lithium ions, which are more abundant and less expensive. They are not as energy-dense as lithium-ion batteries, but they could be a good option for stationary energy storage.
  3. Solid-state batteries: These batteries use a solid electrolyte instead of a liquid one, which makes them safer and more stable than traditional batteries. They could be a good option for electric vehicles and other high-performance applications.
  4. Flow batteries: These batteries store energy in a liquid electrolyte, which can be replenished as needed. They are a good option for stationary energy storage.
  5. Lithium-sulfur batteries: These batteries use sulfur instead of cobalt, which is a more abundant and less expensive material. They have a higher energy density than lithium-ion batteries, but they are not as durable.

These alternative battery technologies are still in the early stages of development, and there are challenges to overcome before they can be widely adopted. However, they offer promising solutions to the challenge of a potential shortage of materials for traditional battery technologies.

 

According to the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) study, published in the journal Nature Reviews Materials, March 2019,  a shortage and price increase of cobalt are likely to occur in about thirty years, especially since demand for the metal is expected to be twice as high as today’s identified global reserves. “It is therefore indispensable to expand the research activities towards alternative battery technologies in order to decrease these risks and reduce the pressure on cobalt and lithium reserves”, Daniel Buchholz, one of the experts who supervised the study, said in a statement.

 

The German team, however, insists on a deficit, based on their scenario-based analysis, and suggests that cobalt-free battery technologies — including post-lithium technologies based on non-critical elements such as sodium, magnesium, zinc, calcium and aluminum — are the best way to avoid supply issues in the long term.

 

If other battery chemistries were used at large scale, e.g. lithium iron phosphate or novel lithium-sulphur or lithium-air batteries, the demand for cobalt and nickel would be substantially smaller. Several companies are already working on finding alternatives to cobalt and lithium. Toyota Motor Corp, Asia’s No.1 carmaker, said last month it had found a way to make electric vehicles (EVs) more affordable and less vulnerable to shortages in supply of the key elements needed.

 

Maryssael added, according to the sources, that Tesla will continue to focus more on nickel, part of a plan by Chief Executive Elon Musk to use less cobalt in battery cathodes. Cobalt is primarily mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and some extraction techniques – especially those using child labor – have made its use deeply unpopular across the battery industry, especially with Musk.

 

Recycling

Recycling batteries is an important process that helps to reduce the amount of hazardous waste that is sent to landfills, and also helps to recover valuable materials that can be used to create new batteries. By recovering these materials, the recycling of batteries helps to conserve natural resources and reduce the environmental impact of mining for new materials.

 

Recycling, in the long term, may also be a potential way to reduce mineral shortages. Recycling is currently more promising for indium and gallium than for tellurium and is currently not feasible for neodymium and dysprosium. Further R&D in recycling and alternative technologies to reduce dependence on these materials should, therefore, be a continued priority.

 

High-value metals recovered from old laptops, corroded power drills, and electric vehicles could power tomorrow’s cars, thanks to recycling advances that make it possible to turn old batteries into new ones.

 

China leads the world in battery recycling today, dominated by subsidiaries of major battery companies like CATL. The EU recently proposed extensive recycling regulations with mandates for battery manufacturers. And companies in North America, like Redwood Materials and Li-Cycle, are quickly scaling operations, funded by billions of dollars in public and private investment.

 

South Korea is increasingly turning to “urban mining” to recover cobalt, lithium and other scarce metals from electronic waste. In 2016, 19.6 trillion won ($18.38 billion) worth of metals were extracted from recycled materials, meeting roughly 22 percent of the country’s total metal demand, according to a report by the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology. “Major automobile companies are interested in our products,: he said, without naming the automakers. He added that battery companies and POSCO, a South Korean steelmaker, are interested in getting into the recycling business themselves. SungEel HiTech is South Korea’s largest battery recycler. Yi Kang-myung, SungEel HiTech’s president, said the shortage of mined metals had led his company to boost capacity by threefold this year.

 

Recycling technologies

Older methods of processing spent batteries struggled to reliably recover enough of these individual metals to make recycling economical. But new approaches have swiftly changed that, enabling recyclers to more effectively dissolve the metals and separate them from battery waste.

 

Recycling facilities can now recover nearly all of the cobalt and nickel and over 80% of the lithium from used batteries and manufacturing scrap left over from battery production—and recyclers plan to resell those metals for a price nearly competitive with that of mined materials. Aluminum, copper, and graphite are often recovered as well.

Current commercial recycling technologies for EV batteries include pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical processing. Pyrometallurgical recycling involves smelting entire batteries or, after pretreatment, battery components. Hydrometallurgical processing involves acid leaching and subsequent recovery of battery materials, e.g., through solvent extraction and precipitation. In closed-loop recycling, pyrometallurgical processing is followed by hydrometallurgical processing to convert the alloy into metal salts. Direct recycling aims at recovering cathode materials while maintaining their chemical structures, which could be economically and environmentally advantageous28; however, it is currently still in early development stages

Charging up battery recycling - Recycling Today

Tesla’s former battery chief, J.B. Straubel, who has seen the issue developing for years, envisions a long-term solution that would produce EV batteries from recycled lithium, nickel and cobalt salvaged from other cars, not mined from the earth. His new startup, Redwood Materials, is developing a closed-loop battery supply chain that he says would lead to cheaper electric vehicles — without harming the environment.

 

There aren’t enough used EVs hitting the junkyard yet. So for now, Redwood is perfecting its processes using batteries stripped from consumer electronics as well as scrapped battery materials from Panasonic, Tesla’s joint venture partner in its Nevada gigafactory. In ovens reaching 2,700°F, Redwood turns the batteries into hot liquid metal and then uses other chemical processes to reduce that metal into highly concentrated forms of lithium, nickel and cobalt. In the process, it must remove parts that can’t be recycled while taking care to neutralize hazardous materials.

 

Closed-loop recycling plays a minor, but increasingly important role for reducing primary material demand until 2050, however, advances in recycling are necessary to economically recover battery-grade materials from end-of-life batteries. Second-use of electric vehicles batteries further delays recycling potentials. Samsung SDI, South Korea’s leading battery maker, unveiled plans to recycle cobalt from used mobile phones and develop lithium-ion batteries with minimum content of the metal, or no cobalt at all, as a way to offset soaring prices for the silver-grey commodity.

 

Battery recycling is still at least three years away from being a serious business, says Simon Moores, managing director of research firm Benchmark Minerals. Nor does he see it as a silver bullet. At best, he projects, recycling will account for 10% of global lithium demand by 2030. “It won’t come close to replacing the need for mined material.”

 

Breakthrough Lithium Extraction Technology Could Accelerate The Sustainable Energy Transition

Over two thirds of the world’s lithium reserves are suspended in “brines” of highly concentrated salt-water. Some of the largest sources are in the salt flats of Bolivia, Chile, China, Argentina and Tibet. Most of it is extracted using vast networks of evaporation ponds in a process that can take up to two years.

 

“The lithium is mixed in with a lot of other similar sized salts, like magnesium, sodium, calcium and potassium,” says Egan. “That makes it really difficult to separate out the useful lithium you want.”

 

Traditional methods rely on the sun evaporating away the water content and waiting for the salts to precipitate out one by one. As lithium is one of the lightest elements in the periodic table, it is the last to come out of the brine mix, and a lot is lost along the way. Typically, only 30-50% is successfully extracted.

 

Egan gave the example of a facility owned by lithium extraction company SQM. Their facility in northern Chile covers over 44km2 and requires 2000 employees to operate. “At $40/m capex, that is roughly $1.76 billion to set up this evaporation pond system that is only yielding 30,000 metric tons of lithium per year,” says Egan. Whilst the evaporation ponds also produce other useful products besides lithium, increasing production would require a relatively proportional increase in land and labour force. This is not practical when near-term demand for lithium is increasing by a factor of ten.

 

EnergyX claim their patented LiTAS technology, underpinned by research published in leading academic journals Science and Nature, revolutionises this. The new method accelerates the lithium extraction process from years to days, and rather than a 30-50% extraction rate, the technology captures closer to 90% of the lithium in the mix.

 

“We have the technology to secure the global supply of lithium for the future and extract it in a more environmentally sustainable method,” Egan added.

 

The underlying science is based on a new class of materials called metal-organic frameworks (MOF), which have an extremely large internal surface area and small pore sizes. These act like an organic sieve to separate very accurately different metal ions of similar size.

 

“The fact that we are seeing MOF membranes target and separate these specific metal ions in an aqueous mixture is a pioneering and novel breakthrough,” explains TJ Dilenschneider, Chief Science Officer at EnergyX. “The ‘salts’ in saltwater brines are all so similar, that having the ability to target and separate lithium from magnesium and calcium or sodium from lithium at high concentrations is phenomenal.”

 

According to Egan,  the speed of production is in the magnitude of 100x faster and requires a minimal workforce overhead. Both factors will drastically reduce the price of lithium, which EnergyX say make up a substantial amount of a battery cell’s cost.  The set-up costs and environmental impact of LiTAS are also expected to be minimal. “Compared to the vast evaporation ponds, our technology can be deployed in fraction of that, in a factory setting,” added Egan. With no major land purchase costs, significant areas of natural terrain can be left unspoilt and unlike traditional evaporation techniques used by lithium miners no external freshwater usage is required.

 

In turn, more competitive battery costs would help accelerate the uptake of electric vehicles and increasing levels of solar and wind energy, which are the cheapest form of electricity generation in a growing number of markets around the world but require energy storage to address their variability.

 

The technology is a culmination of thousands of hours and millions of dollars in research stemming from a tri-institutional collaborative effort between Monash University, CSIRO (the Australian National Laboratory), and The University of Texas at Austin (UT). The work was also backed by a $10.75m U.S. Department of Energy grant.

 

International Collaboration and Policy Frameworks

Addressing the global shortage of battery minerals requires international cooperation and harmonized policy frameworks. Governments, industries, and organizations should collaborate on sustainable mining practices, promote responsible sourcing, and incentivize the development of critical minerals.

Conclusion

The global shortage of battery minerals presents a formidable challenge to the growth of electric vehicles and sustainable transportation. However, by adopting a multifaceted approach that emphasizes diversification, recycling, research, and ethical practices, we can overcome this obstacle. With responsible sourcing, technological innovations, and international cooperation, we can pave the way for a future where electric vehicles play a vital role in creating a cleaner and more sustainable world. Embracing these solution approaches is the key to unlocking the full potential of electric vehicles, driving us towards a greener and brighter tomorrow.

 

 

References and Resources also include:

https://www.axios.com/battery-shortage-risk-electric-car-era-fa699bfb-9d57-4bdc-b907-993903cc7620.html

https://www.northernminer.com/analysis/battery-metals-are-critical-over-the-next-decade-roskill-says/1003828431/

 

 

 

About Rajesh Uppal

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