Where do EV battery minerals come from?
EVs help fight one global problem – climate change – but they create another: mineral dependency. Will we become as reliant on those who mine and process those minerals as we are on those who produce our oil and gas?
Energy isn’t just economics: it’s politics, too. The Ukraine crisis has taught Europe that its dependence on Russian oil and gas is a strategic weakness. Europe has now taken the decision to wean itself off Russian energy, so it is likely that the transition to sustainable energy sources will accelerate. But are we merely sleepwalking into the next problem?
6 TWh battery power
In terms of mobility, the energy transition means switching from cars with internal combustion engines (ICEs) to electric vehicles (EVs). In 2020, 3.2 million new EVs were registered globally, bringing the world total to 10.9 million. The electrification trend will accelerate: by 2030, EVs will make up anywhere between 25% and 75% of new registrations globally.
That will lead to a worldwide demand for battery power of between 1 and 6 TWh per year. That’s a lot of EV batteries. The standard solution for EVs, today and for the foreseeable future, are lithium-ion batteries. These need a selection of five key minerals to operate: graphite, cobalt, lithium, manganese, and nickel. At present, the supply chain for those minerals is dominated by China.
Not that China is particularly rich in those minerals. Most are in fact found in places as far-flung as Chile, DR Congo and Australia. But China long ago took the strategic decision to dominate the processing of those minerals, and now controls about three-quarters of that market.
Playing catch-up, governments and car manufacturers in North America and Europe are racing to secure their own direct access to these minerals – both in terms of mining and processing – in order to reduce their reliance on China. So, the competition for these minerals is likely to heat up, especially since rising demand for some of these minerals could increase tenfold over the next few years.
Some OEMs are not taking any chances. Instead of relying on third-party suppliers, as they traditionally have done for raw materials, companies like Tesla, but also GM, VW and BMW are starting to buy the minerals they need straight from the mines. Sometimes, they even invest in the mines themselves, to ensure production will scale up.
This may again prove the point about energy being political: as OEMs – who have a major interest in good public relations – become a party to mineral mining, they will become responsible for the working conditions of those mines, which are often plagued by issues like child and slave labour, not to mention safety concerns and environmental pollution. It could, in other words, be good news for the people who work in the mines. Alternatively, it could spell PR disaster for those OEMs who fail to clean up their act.
Supply and demand
The relative value of the five key minerals for EV battery production changes as supply and demand change. For instance, for each kg of EV battery cell, about 72 g of lithium is required. That is not likely to reduce anytime soon, says the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI).
However, demand for cobalt, currently making up 200 g per kg of battery cell, could drop to about 60 g/kg. Adding up all forecasts for the three main minerals, the ISI estimates demand for EV battery production by 2030 to be between 250,000 and 450,000 tons of lithium, between 250,000 and 420, 000 tons of cobalt, and between 1.3 and 2.4 million tons of nickel.
While sufficient reserves are available around the planet, mining and processing could struggle to keep pace with the rise in demand. That would produce temporary supply bottlenecks. According to DERA, Germany’s Mineral Resources Agency, this is the situation with regard to the five most critical minerals:
- Used as the anode material in lithium-ion batteries.
- Represents the largest volume of all the raw materials used for EV batteries.
Exploration for graphite has increased in Africa, notably Mozambique, Tanzania and Madagascar, which could help diversify the supply, currently dominated by China. That country produces 50% of the world’s synthetic graphite, and about 70% of so-called ‘flaked’ graphite, which must be treated before it can be used in EV batteries.
- Required for battery cathodes.
- Currently presents the greatest procurement risk of all EV battery raw materials.
Demand for cobalt is expected to grow by as much as 20 times the current amount to around 315,000 ton in 2030. That will lead to supply bottlenecks. Cobalt production in DR Congo represents 69% of the global market, and the country could ramp up production to satisfy at least part of future demand. Another solution: low-cobalt or no-cobalt cathodes, which are in development. This would drastically cut the demand.
- Lithium is mined mainly in Australia, Chile and Argentina.
- Just four companies control 60% of global production.
- The lithium market needs to triple by 2026 to meet future demand.
Due to the projected boom in demand, large-scale lithium mines are planned in Canada, Mexico and Bolivia. Europe has some potential for lithium mining. Asian battery manufacturers have already negotiated long-term supply contracts, securing large quotas of future production. They’re also acquiring stakes in mining companies. This limits the amount of lithium freely available on the market.
- About 90% of manganese goes to the steel industry.
- Only 0.2% is used for lithium-ion batteries.
- This will only increase to about 1%.
- In 2019, global demand for nickel to produce lithium-ion batteries was around 150,000 tons. That’s less than 5% of global market volume.
- By 2025, demand for EV production could increase to 500,000 tons per year, or about 15% of the global market.
Nickel sulphate is used to increase the energy density of lithium-ion batteries, which means demand will rise even faster than overall demand for EV batteries.
Primary nickel is mined mainly in Indonesia. In 2020, the country imposed an export ban, to ensure processing was done in the country. It is now the world’s second-largest producer of class-II nickel (<99% pure), after China. Projects are under way to boost Indonesia’s production of class-I nickel, which produces nickel sulphate.
Russia is also an important source of nickel. The sanctions that came into effect after its invasion of Ukraine have caused nickel prices to spike.
Reducing EV manufacturers’ dependency on monopolistic producers and/or processors of these five key minerals will require concerted action by all stakeholders, including the OEMs themselves, but also governments, industry and science.
However, recycling is a yet underestimated helpline. Used EV batteries can also be ‘mined’ to recover minerals, which then can be re-used. The process is complex – much more so than similar ones currently in use for mobile phone batteries – but as the volume of used batteries grows, the procedure becomes potentially more profitable. Some current examples:
- A German-Swedish research project at Aachen University aims to develop a plant with an annual recycling capacity of 25,000 tons of battery mass. Its process would recycle almost without creating any waste.
- Finnish company Fortum has already developed a process for recycling lithium-ion batteries from EVs.
- Belgium-based mining multinational Umicore has developed a metallurgical process for commercially recycling EV batteries. Its first plant has a capacity of 7,000 tons of battery mass per year, which corresponds to about 35,000 EV batteries.
- In 2021, VW started a pilot plant for recycling EV batteries, which will recover 100% of the lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt, plus 90% of the aluminium, copper and plastic used. It can recycle up to 3,600 batteries per year, or about 1,500 tons of battery mass. The plant can be scaled up when more used EV batteries become available. Other OEMs, including Mercedes-Benz, are considering similar operations.
Will our electrified fleets be as dependent on batteries and battery materials from China as our fossil-fuelled ones are on the oil flowing from petro states like Saudi Arabia and Russia? Stakeholders in North America and Europe are investing heavily in both mining and processing the minerals required for EV batteries. (And in battery factories, but that’s another story). Time will tell whether those efforts are sufficient.
Top image: evaporation ponds of a lithium mine in Nevada, United States.