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.
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
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.”
Analysts from Roskill, a commodity research firm and a leader in critical materials supply chains, provide an outlook on battery metals’ markets over the next decade.
Global demand for lithium carbonate — one of two primary forms of lithium used in EVs — is expected to exceed one million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) in 2026, according to David Merriman, an expert on EV and battery materials at Roskill. “To meet this increasing demand for lithium products, which is more than double that expected this year, we would need to see not just an expansion in output from existing producers but also new producers looking to commission new capacity,” he said in an interview. “This will require significant new investment in the industry.”
The nickel sulphate industry is already responding to growing demand, with new capacity coming online in Asia and Europe. A ramp-up in nickel feedstock supply in Europe will primarily come from the Talvivaara nickel mine in Finland, he said. The global growth in demand for nickel sulphate will also be met from High Pressure Acid Leach (HPAL) operations in Indonesia. “China is investing a large amount of capital into developing these new mines, which will provide significant quantities of nickel feedstocks throughout the mid-2020s as they come online,” he said.
Cobalt is vital for boosting the energy density and life of lithium-ion batteries, and its thermal stability prevents batteries from overheating and potentially catching fire. Supply will come from expansions in existing operations, restarts of operations on care and maintenance, and the commissioning and ramp-up of greenfield projects. The analyst forecasts that existing operations will account for 183,000 tonnes of cobalt in 2030, of which more than 124,000 tonnes will come from mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Outside of the DRC, much of the mine supply growth will come from Indonesia, where cobalt resources are abundant, he said.
The copper industry has suffered from years of underinvestment, and it is now working feverishly to develop new mines and bring fresh supply online as the electrification trend envelops the global economy. Electric cars use twice as much copper as internal combustion engines. So-called smart-home systems – such as Alphabet Inc’s Nest thermostat and Amazon.com Inc’s Alexa personal assistant – will consume about 1.5 million tonnes of copper by 2030, up from 38,000 tonnes today, according to data from consultancy BSRIA.
Alternative 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, 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.
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.
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
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.
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