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The Electric Cars and What is the Cobalt Dilemma?

A recent study by the Helmholtz Institute Ulm (HIU) in Germany proposes global supplies of lithium and cobalt, essential materials used in electric vehicle batteries, will become critical by 2050. “The cobalt demand by batteries might be twice as high as the today’s identified reserves,” the HIU report stated. HIU indicated that lithium reserves would be “much less strained” if the current production levels could be dramatically up-scaled.

The majority of cobalt production is a by-product of copper mining.

Why not remove all the cobalt? Abraham explained: “From our experience, at least small amounts of cobalt are needed in the material because it appears to help the rate performance—the rate at which the power is delivered.” Electric vehicles need to have batteries that accept lithium ions at a high rate during charging and deliver lithium ions at a high rate during discharge. Abraham said about 10% cobalt appears to be necessary to enhance the rate properties of the battery.

More than half of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which a 2017 USGS report described as having a high-risk for doing business and a substantial risk of civil war.

The only saving grace good is that both cobalt and lithium are recyclable, although almost no lithium-ion battery recycling currently takes place.

The above concerns are forcing manufacturers to look for alternatives to replace batteries dependent on metals from unstable parts of the world.

There is hope in the form of Tufts. Professor Michael Zimmerman who is hopeful a material he invented in his basement can be the answer the electric car industry is looking for. Mr Zimmerman runs start-up Ionic Materials, whose battery material could mark the future for the car industry as it races to go electric after a century of producing petrol cars. His hope is that his home-grown prototype could pave the way for a new generation of batteries that do not use cobalt.

"The world wants to electrify vehicles, Mr Zimmerman says” I've never seen such a massive industry say [it wants] to completely switch technologies. Every single company, government and country — they all want to do it worldwide."

Many experts are saying that the battery will be as pivotal to this century as oil was to the last, but should the future of the car industry be reliant on some of the most-criticised practices of the old industrial economy.

Gleb Yushin, a professor at the School of Materials and Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology say “There will be no EV industry without DRC cobalt,” says Caspar Rawles, who tracks the market for London-based consultancy Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. “Without the DRC, this ramp-up in EVs won’t happen.”

In the last 5 years, sales of battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid versions have grown from about 6,000 cars in 2010 to 1m cars sold last year, or about 1 per cent of annual sales. There will be a further 340m electric vehicles (including passenger cars, trucks and buses) produced between now and 2030, according to analysts at McKinsey.

Mr Zimmerman says. He believes the battery that powers our world may have reached its limit.

“Everyone wants their smartphone to last longer and their car battery to not blow up,” he says. “My belief is that lithium-ion batteries are at a dead-end right now; there’s really no further improvement that can be made with the current technology.”

Analysts at Liberum, the London-based brokerage and investment bank, estimate that the cost of cobalt in a kilogramme of battery cathode material is about $12, compared with $8 for lithium and $5 for a nickel. Metals account for about 25 per cent of the battery cost, they estimate. While new sources of cobalt are being developed in Idaho, Alaska and Australia, they are not due to produce metal until after 2020.

Carmakers such as to Mercedes-Benz and the British engineering group Dyson are also working on solid-state batteries like Mr Zimmerman’s and there were about $400m of investments in the technology in the first half of the year, according to consultancy Wood Mackenzie. They forecast that such batteries will make up the majority of electric car technology by 2030 but will not enter the market until 2025.

“There are still a number of challenging problems in order for an all-solid-state battery to be a commercially viable proposition,” says Peter Bruce, a professor in the Department of Materials at Oxford University. “But they are now being addressed.”
Tesla has said the company was “aiming to achieve close to zero usage of cobalt in the near future”.

Yet, even with a shift to lower cobalt batteries, demand for the metal is still expected to more than double by 2025, according to Wood Mackenzie. “Zero cobalt is hard, low is possible, [but] zero is very tricky at this point,” Mr Viswanathan says. 

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