Last updated October 16, 2017 at 1:41 pm
Lithium-ion batteries are expected to play a key role in technology in the near future, with the high-capacity rechargeable batteries finding increased use in residential, industrial and network power supply applications, as well as electric transport and consumer goods. However, to be able to meet this increasing demand, US scientists say we need to start planning now.
A first-of-its-kind analysis, published in the journal Joule, found the supply chain for the key materials in lithium-ion batteries, including manganese, nickel, and graphite, likely have sufficient supply to meet the anticipated long-term growth. Sourcing lithium and cobalt in the short term was found to be more challenging.
“The theme that we see with material availability is there’s often concern about whether there is enough x to meet new demand in y,” said Elsa Olivetti, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who conducted the analysis. “You end up with a lot of hype without thoughtful care about where the challenges are, so let’s panic where it’s appropriate.”
Like any battery, a lithium-ion battery consists of an anode (typically graphite), a cathode (typically oxides of lithium, cobalt, nickel, and/or manganese), and a liquid electrolyte (a solution of lithium and other ions). The researchers assessed the availability of each of these elements and found the supply of cobalt to be most vulnerable. The majority of cobalt is mined from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which introduces geo-political and supply chain disruption potential. The study predicts that supply of cobalt may become unbalanced by 2025, but suggests two longer-term strategies to handle the demand for the metal – enhancing recycling and developing new technologies. The recycling of cobalt is already economically viable, and the potential development of new cathode materials to replace cobalt would also reduce the risks to supply.
Lithium is less of a concern because, even though the demand will significantly increase in the near future, it can be mined from a variety of sources and is abundant in several countries including Australia, Chile, and Argentina. Already there are increasing numbers of lithium mining projects being developed in Western Australia to take advantage of this booming demand.
There is around 10-times more graphite in a lithium battery than lithium, which has also seen a boom in graphene mining worldwide. However the supply of cobalt is the concerning factor for the future.
“Today, less than 1% of the automotive sector has any level of electrification, and almost half of Li-ion batteries are already going towards the automotive field. So we see that there’s going to be an enormous push on some of the essential resources,” co-author Gerbrand Ceder from the University of California told Science. “We wrote this paper so people don’t think, ‘oh if I run out of cobalt, I’ll just switch to something else.’ There are real resource issues on the horizon that the industry can start planning for and avoid.”
Olivetti adds: “We want to make sure that everyone is thinking about these issues, and that we have the right solution for whatever time on the horizon we’re planning for.”
The analysis is published as:
Joule, Olivetti et al.: “Lithium-ion Battery Supply Chain Considerations: Analysis of Potential Bottlenecks in Critical Metals” http://www.cell.com/joule/fulltext/S2542-4351(17)30044-2