Battery builders get the cobalt blues

Posted: March 12, 2018 by oldbrew in Travel

Chinese electric car [image credit:]

One battery expert said: ‘I’ve had multiple Chinese carmakers in my office really worried [about cobalt supply]. They wish they’d thought about this two years ago.’ They find themselves bidding against the likes of wealthy companies like Apple and Samsung for supplies.

Demand for battery metals surges on the back of a global appetite for electric vehicles, reports ChemistryWorld.

At the beginning of 2017, $32,500 (£26,300) would buy you one tonne of cobalt. Today you’d have to fork out $81,000. Since 2016, cobalt’s price has spiked enormously, and it’s all because of batteries.

Cobalt is an essential component of the lithium ion batteries that power our phones and laptops, and which are expected to be a key part of the world’s energy mix. ‘In 2017, we saw demand from the battery sector at 102 GWh, but we expect that to increase to 709 gigawatt hours by 2026,’ says Caspar Rawles, market analyst at Benchmark Minerals Intelligence.

That demand comes from consumer electronics and using batteries as grid storage for renewable energy sources. But by far the biggest driver is electric vehicles, with governments around the world looking to make the switch from petrol and diesel.

In July 2017, the UK announced plans to phase out sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040, and the EU is tightening carbon dioxide limits to incentivise a shift to electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, India plans to replace its entire car fleet with electric models by 2030. In California, the official target for electric vehicles is 5 million by 2030. And in China, where electric vehicles are seen as a solution to its smog-ridden cities, subsidies are offered to consumers and a reward system for manufacturers is being introduced.

Consumers will be able to choose from an expanding range of models. All will be powered by the lithium ion battery, the battery of choice for General Motors, Honda, Tesla, BMW, Ford, BYD and Nissan.

Each time battery prices decrease, the competitiveness of electric closes in on the internal combustion engine.

Immaterial costs
But the cost of the lithium ion battery will determine how quickly electric cars roll out, because it can be up to half the cost of a purely electric vehicle. Material prices were less important when lithium ion battery costs were $1,000 per kWh around 2010, but as prices near $100 per kWh (they are below $140 today) the basic material costs now make up 70% of the total cost of a lithium ion battery.

‘For the first time we have seen large-scale battery manufacturers increase their prices. That has largely been down to the price of key commodities such as lithium and cobalt,’ explains Rawles. ‘Cobalt has a big impact and that is one of the big talking points for the industry right now.’

Cobalt’s price has rocketed because the increased demand from big battery makers, electronics manufacturers and auto companies is putting pressure on a supply that is constrained by several factors to do with economics, politics and geography.

Continued here.

  1. Phoenix44 says:

    Cobalt is 0.0029% of the Earth’s crust. By contrast, titanium is a massive 0.63% of the Earth’s crust.

    I would be amazed if there is enough cobalt for all these plans. And aren’t we supposed to be not using up all the Earth’s resources?

  2. oldbrew says:

    ‘analysts Wood Mackenzie estimate that there will be four-fold demand for cobalt for electric vehicles by 2020 and eleven-fold by 2025….basic material costs now make up 70% of the total cost of a lithium ion battery.’

    Cobalt price has already trebled in the last 2-3 years. Supplies (per year) are limited.

    ‘A smartphone might use 10–20g of cobalt, but an electric car could harbour 10–20kg. And car companies will struggle to pay the prices that consumer electronics will fork out.’

  3. Kip Hansen says:

    The major question for all these nations moving to All Electric autos is: “Where are you going to get the electricity to charge all those cars? Where is the infrastructure going to come from to delivery that electrical power to a billion homes? Massive adoption of all electric cars will require the re-wiring of entire nations.”

    In the United States alone, the energy equivalent of 400 million gallons of gasoline a day will have to be delivered to home charging stations. Where is that power going to come from?

  4. Phoenix44 says:

    In addition to all the infrastructure which will be needed (which will cost tens of billions in the UK or more), has anybody worked out the additional costs required to ensure we don’t have things like police cars and ambulances out for 4-6 hours at a time? Or do they get to use fossil fuels still?

    Why we are pursuing this madness is something future historians will struggle to understand.

  5. oldbrew says:

    Gerry – report says ‘the likes of Tesla Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp. could count on recycling for 10 percent of their battery material needs through 2025 if companies roll out large schemes’

    Still leaves 90% or more to be mined up to 2025, but clearly recycling will be needed.

  6. E.M.Smith says:

    There are plenty of other battery chemistries. Some use no Cobalt at all and are better suited to car needs, especially in colder climates.

    Figure 15 compares the specific energy of lead-, nickel- and lithium-based systems. While Li-aluminum (NCA) is the clear winner by storing more capacity than other systems, this only applies to specific energy. In terms of specific power and thermal stability, Li-manganese (LMO) and Li-phosphate (LFP) are superior. Li-titanate (LTO) may have low capacity but this chemistry outlives most other batteries in terms of life span and also has the best cold temperature performance. Moving towards the electric powertrain, safety and cycle life will gain dominance over capacity. (LCO stands for Li-cobalt, the original Li-ion.)

    The thought being that the Lithium Titanate cell, being superior in lifespan and better low temperature characteristics will make a better car battery…

    New tech is always like this. Commodity prices are always volatile. Some commodity spikes up on big demand ramps. Engineers get assigned to design around it. For 2 years or so prices hang high then all the new designs hit the assembly floor and price drops, sometimes to below the starting point. Then everyone moves on…

    Like the hype on silver prices due to RFID tags. Folks moved to copper RFID tags among other materials and silver did a “pop and drop” as the “story” lost currency.

    So it might be Lithium Titanate, or a Sodium Ion, or a Potassium Ion, or a Lithium Iron Phosphate, or a Lithium Manganese Oxide, or a …. cell that replaces the Lithium Cobalt in the 2020+ model year cars. I’m pretty sure nobody but the engineers and repair guys will even notice…

  7. oldbrew says:

    The role of cobalt in battery supply

    Despite some researchers attempting to find a NMC battery with zero cobalt composition, Gao estimates that at least 10% cobalt must be used in battery cathode chemistry at all times due to safety and battery longevity reasons.
    – – –
    The Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance is working on solid-state battery technology, that it hopes to bring to market in its plug-in vehicles as soon as 2025.

    According to reports in the Financial Times, the electric vehicle giant is developing the next-generation battery technology, which would see EV driving ranges increase and charging times reduce compared to existing lithium-ion packs.

    Other benefits include a longer life and the potential for reduced production costs, but there are a number of problems currently, including the materials used, and testing on a large scale.
    . . .
    The likes of BMW and Toyota are also working on bringing solid-state EVs to market

  8. stpaulchuck says:

    it’s much worse than all that folks. Have you taken note of the increased incidents of insanity? There’s is a definite ramp up in insane incidents in the last decade particularly.

    It’s all down to these damnable lithium based batteries. The massive redirect to the battery industry has driven up the price of lithium to the point people with sanity issues can’t afford their meds. We must put a stop to it. [/snark]

    Look guys, just let science and the market alone to fix it like they have for ages. Either a new battery entirely or some substitute will come along and all the brouhaha will die away. We’ve done it before. We’ll do it again. I’ve noted a number of promising technologies over on Phys-dot-org. Cheers.

  9. manicbeancounter says:

    I was a management accountant for a number of years at a chemical factory where cobalt was easily the most valuable raw material. It was originally used as a drying agent for oil-based paint (the traditional metal being lead). In the 1970’s it was used in a bonding agent in steel radial tyres to help the steel adhere to the rubber. From around 1989 to 1992 the more than tripled to over $30,000 per tonne. Large fluctuations in the cobalt price is not uncommon.
    But if the prices of cobalt remain high, then extraction in cobalt-rich copper and nickel mines will rise, whereas in those mines with little or no cobalt will fall.
    However, it would be useful to know the cobalt content of lithium-ion batteries. In a tyre, the cobalt content is maybe a couple of grammes, so the recent rise has added less than a £1 to the cost of a tyre.

  10. oldbrew says:

    mbc – a figure I saw was a minimum of 10% cobalt, 15% more likely – depending on exact battery type.

    Zero cobalt is possible but with less battery performance.

  11. […] 50 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from the Congo, where it’s largely mined by hand, in some instances by […]

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