By on May 21, 2018

LG Chem Electric Vehicle Battery Production

As we hurl ourselves into the the glistening, unknown future, we are continuously confronted with new obstacles. While we’re good at coming up with solutions to new problems, there are plenty of important questions left hanging in the air as technology pushes us onward. Why do we keep working longer hours as more things become automated? How to we ensure that sentient machines do not decide to kill us? Why are there still so many people that use the speaker function on their phones in public places?

In the automotive realm, autonomous driving and battery technology are the golden geese of progress right now. While driving aids are becoming ever-more impressive, truly self-driving cars are a little further out than most manufacturers would like to admit. Meanwhile, electric automobiles are already here and tangible as hell. You could have one tomorrow if you wanted.

The issues associated with autonomous vehicles are beyond complex. In addition to deciding how to develop the technology effectively, a myriad of questions exist as to the legal ramifications of its implementation and how its very existence could change society. Electric cars are more straightforward, and the problems they face are predominantly logistics oriented. But they’re about to face a monumental hurdle in a few years. 

Cobalt is an essential part of rechargeable batteries and the vast majority is mined in one place — the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). While China, Russia, Australia, and Zambia, also pull the element from the Earth’s crust, the Congo produces more than the rest of them combined. But even at its current rate, analysts don’t think it will be nearly enough to support EV production in the coming years.

Earlier estimates had cobalt shortages occurring sometime within in the next decade. Most automakers intend to expand their EV production exponentially over the coming years, resulting in a demand for cobalt that will multiply eightfold by 2026. By then, manufacturers will require over 300,000 metric tons of cobalt per year, according to Scientific American. The current global demand record for the blueish metal, set last year, was 100,000 metric tons. Car builders will be asking for thrice that, forcing them to compete with other industries that also need rechargeable batteries.

Estimates for the world’s total mining capacity for cobalt, in a best-case scenario, sits around 290,000 metric tons per annum by 2025. In other words, it probably isn’t going to be enough.

Worse still is that automakers are supposed to continue growing their battery powered fleets throughout the coming decade while other industries continue expanding their own battery production. Even the most conservative estimates have car companies requesting over 350,000 tons by 2030. But those are the old estimates. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) recently revised its estimates, stating that Cobalt shortages are likely to appear earlier than previously forecast.

“The long lead time to bring on new mines and the concentration of cobalt reserves in the Democratic Republic of the Congo mean there is a real possibility of supply shocks in the early 2020s,” BNEF claimed.

With most mines already operating near capacity and a global shortage looming, cobalt prices have skyrocketed over the last few years. In some markets prices are currently at almost 300 percent of what they were in the start of 2016. “If capacity does not grow as planned, cobalt prices could continue to spike and there could be a major cobalt shortage,” said the analysts. “This would have serious implications on the electric vehicle market.”

Without new operations commencing by 2020 at a significant volume, shortages could begin by 2022. But that doesn’t address the ever-present political instability in the Congo or the widespread, and complicated, child labor issues associated with mining in the region. In 2016, Amnesty International charged itself with bringing companies to task that might use batteries with materials sourced from the DRC — including automakers. But the problem with that is, if they aren’t getting cobalt from the Congo, then they are probably won’t have any to put into their cars.

One possibly way to circumvent the issues is to produce batteries that use less cobalt. Chinese manufacturers, like BYD, intend to implement high-nickel/low-cobalt cells this year. The nickel-manganese-cobalt ratio not only lessens the need for cobalt, it also extends the lifespan of the battery — highly important for automotive applications. Likewise, recycling efforts could also reduce the need for mining raw materials. Unfortunately, even the new battery tech requires the use of cobalt and recycling is somewhat inefficient (and produces pollutants as a byproduct).

Many battery manufacturers are already doing everything they can to procure materials as a possible shortage approaches. Last month, LG Chem announced it has agreed to set up two new joint ventures with China’s Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt to secure metals as automakers get hungrier for batteries. But all the big players are making moves.

The good news is that, with cobalt prices so incredibly high, investment in additional mines seem extremely likely. Data on the shortage is also speculative, despite being based on sound projections. Automakers could change their minds and pull back on EVs to avoid being confronted with a shortage. However, if electrification happens at the rates they predict, there will be no way to avoid it.

[Image: LG Chem]

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69 Comments on “The ‘Electric Revolution’ Can’t Happen Without Cobalt, and We’re Already Running Out...”


  • avatar
    TMA1

    Dammit, get those kids back in the mines! I’ve got virtues to signal.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Foley

      I was going to post a Full Metal Jacket joke about “short-dicking every cannibal in the Congo” to obtain cobalt, but your post was way better. Well played.

    • 0 avatar

      +5 to you, sir.

    • 0 avatar
      TMA1

      “There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with a harness round their waists and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it.”

      – George Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier”

      That’s what I was thinking of, as well as “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omeles.”

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    The chief exports of the DRC are cobalt and Ebola Zaire. You Captain Planet types out there may want to consider the human rights violations involved in your quest to feed your heads. Cobalt is the blood diamonds of the 21st century. No small children were harmed in the manufacture of my planet killing, V-8, ICE car. You people make me sick.

  • avatar
    IBx1

    Gasoline, it’s the future!

  • avatar
    Asdf

    Yet another indication that the transition to BEVs is premature. It’s a good thing that the internal combustion is tried and tested, it won’t be going away any time soon, and eventually people will have to wake up to that fact.

    • 0 avatar
      TMA1

      While every major automaker is promising 20+ BEV models in the next decade, Mazda doubles down on ICE engines.

      Mazda: Zoom-Zoom to the future!

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      @Asdf: For once I’ll agree with you.

      I find the New Religion of EVs premature and foolish. Most companies making these proclamations about ‘electrifying’ their products are really just building compliance vehicles to satisfy regulators, anyway.

      Most consumers aren’t really ready for the EV lifestyle, including the slow charging you often mention. Those that can deal with it, do. But I’ll be more convinced when I see grandmothers, soccer moms, and Texas ranchers driving EVs.

      Moreover – and most importantly – nobody building EVs today can do so profitably.

  • avatar
    srh

    Economics 101: An alternative will be found.

  • avatar
    mcs

    The Chinese aren’t the only ones with low cobalt cells in production. The Koreans, SKInnovations, has them in production already. Also, Panasonic is currently mass producing low cobalt cells in a large factory in Nevada. Cobalt used to be used in equal amounts to Nickel and Manganese, but now the ratio in the new cells that are in production are 8 parts nickel to one part manganese and one part cobalt. Again, these cells are in mass production now at several manufacturers. Panasonic’s maybe even lower.

    • 0 avatar
      sgtjmack

      Regardless of how low you get the Cobalt ratio, you still need Cobalt to put into the batteries, and with all of the supposed BEV’s in production now as well as those in the pipelines, you are talking about a crap ton of Cobalt that will be needed to fill those orders.

  • avatar
    Hellenic Vanagon

    Imagine a world with billions of shining electric cars powered by infinite number of nuclear plants and cobalt a lot of cobalt on the surface of the earth, in a try to satisfy the hungry for cobalt electrics, all the underground cobalt on the surface:

    “Cobalt and cobalt compounds that release cobalt ions in vivo.

    Cobalt and cobalt compounds that release cobalt ions in vivo are being listed as reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.
    The listing for cobalt includes different types of cobalt compounds that release ions into the body.
    It does not include vitamin B-12, because cobalt in this essential nutrient is bound to protein and does not release cobalt ions.
    Cobalt is a naturally occurring element used to make metal alloys and other metal compounds, such as military and industrial equipment, and rechargeable batteries.
    The highest exposure occurs in the workplace and from failed surgical implants.
    The listing for this metal and its compounds is based largely on studies in experimental animals.”
    https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/seven-substances-added-14th-report-carcinogens

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    Cobalt Man was an enemy of the X-Men, the original X-Men back in the ‘60s, y’know, before Wolverine showed up and hogged all of the attention.

  • avatar

    Ah, yes. The scrupulous Chinese and their labor “laws”. Also, funny how you don’t hear much about their imperialism on the Dark Continent. The locals are in for a big surprise….

    • 0 avatar
      TMA1

      The stories are there if you’re looking. Read about the African Union HQ that the Chinese built. I’m positively shocked that the Chinese bugged the place and were listening for years! Who could have expected that?

      Seriously, that whole continent is going to be speaking Mandarin in a few decades.

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        We could be investing in Africa in exchange for access to their natural reaources, too, but we’re fighting wars in the Middle East instead.

        Brought to you by swagger.

  • avatar
    Nick_515

    Have they looked in US junkyards? I know Cobalts were cockroaches, but the years are piling up.

  • avatar
    TW5

    EV’s are a solution in search of a problem. American consumers are already used to pull the plow for the rest of the world regarding everything from automobiles to prescription drugs. Enough is enough.

    • 0 avatar
      conundrum

      You’re so right. I have it from excellent sources that the US invented fish and chips, pork pies and bacon and eggs, but the British stole the ideas. Multiply that sort of outrage by the number of countries in the world, and the mind reels.

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      I plan to buy an EV within the next year.

      But I’m a geek who likes to try new ways to do things. Getting off the gas price roller coaster is a plus.

      I can make my own electricity if I have to, but I can’t make my own gasoline. So, there’s that.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Maybe I’ll just get a Citicar, powered by recyclable lead-acid batteries.

  • avatar
    redgolf

    Ben, Mr. Maguire, come with me for a minute I want to talk to you – I want to say one word to you, one word, yes sir, are you listening, yes sir – HYDROGEN !!! ;-)

  • avatar
    healthy skeptic

    Not impressed with all the snarky comments on the seamy underbelly of cobalt. Why? Because in order to type and post that snarky comment, you first had to immerse yourself in a global supply chain of consumption and waste that has near unimaginable reach and complexity, backed by who knows how many thousands of injustices large and small. You can start with the plastics on the keyboard under your fingertips.

    I’m immersed in it too. We all are. I can still hope for a better world, even it if can’t ever be perfect. Snark all you want, but in the long run, EVs will be better overall than ICEs for both humanity and the planet. Never perfect, but better. (Plus they can be awesome cars.) What is so bad about that?

    • 0 avatar
      road_pizza

      “Recycling is somewhat inefficient (and produces pollutants as a byproduct)”. You must have missed this part.

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        Recycling batteries is better than burning a ton of gasoline each year, and pooping the resulting waste out of the back of your car.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          Do enough resources exist for 10 million new EV batteries each year? What material is lost in recycling? What environmental hazards do these batteries create and what is the ultimate disposal of non-recyclable material like?

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    “While China, Russia, Australia, and Zambia, also pull the element from the Earth’s crust, the Congo produces more than the rest of them combined.”

    Do you know how Cobalt, Ontario got its name? Do you follow the news about Cobalt, Ontario?

    Did you consider that, like lithium, cobalt is 100% recyclable?

    Is ttac being taken over by far-right trope promoters?

  • avatar
    mcs

    Here are a few links to articles related to cobalt reduction. There are also technologies in the works that allow the use of other metals other than cobalt to stabilize nickel. The battery industry typically operates in stealth mode. Some lab will make some miracle breakthrough, and then you never hear from them again. While most of can’t find a way of getting the breakthrough into mass production, some are successful, but not only keep quiet while they are getting it into production, but some technologies are kept quiet even once they are in mass production.

    Batteries are everywhere and in everything. Not just EVs. We’re pretty much a battery-driven society at this point. That means they aren’t going away and there is a crap-ton of money to be made with a breakthrough. There’s a lot of private equity money funding a lot of tiny little labs (and some large) working on various battery technologies. There is way too much momentum at this point and a ton of money to be made. These guys aren’t giving up.

    https://cleantechnica.com/2018/02/11/nope-cobalts-not-problem-ev-revolution-will-march/

    https://www.ft.com/content/1c154770-4eb6-11e8-a7a9-37318e776bab

    https://www.reuters.com/article/southkorea-skinnovation-battery/s-koreas-sk-innovation-starts-production-of-batteries-with-more-nickel-idUSL4N1LH25Y

    https://cleantechnica.com/2018/04/16/disordering-cathodes-eliminates-the-need-for-cobalt-in-lithium-ion-batteries/

    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-australianmines-cobalt-skinnovation/australian-mines-shares-surge-on-cobalt-deal-with-sk-innovation-idUSKCN1G4169

  • avatar
    cpmanx

    I see the smug Luddites (smugites?) are out in force! These are the same folks who told us that seat belts were a terrible idea because they prevented people from being thrown safely clear of crashes; who warned that emissions controls could never work because there was not enough palladium in the world for all the catalytic converters; who warned that cars were a terrible idea because they lacked the common sense of horses. And so here we go again.

    One thought: If cobalt mining has terrible human-rights violations, why don’t we try to improve the treatment of the workers instead of building dirtier cars?

    Another thought: Imagine what a wonderful world we’d live in if the people who cared about human rights to score debating points against those damn liberals actually cared about human rights all the rest of the time.

  • avatar
    vehic1

    Wow, what a lot of kum-ba-yah goin’ on here! And to think – I had believed many commenters to be as unconcerned with the fate of the poor, minorities, children, and the environment, right here in the USA, as our current government.
    So THAT’S the ticket – opposition to EVs is all about being healthy for the planet, children, and living things! C’mon, people now, smile on your brother . . .

  • avatar
    vehic1

    cpmanx: +1

  • avatar
    M1EK

    This thread is the virtual equivalent of rolling coal. Just a nauseating advertisement of how screwed up American culture has become.

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    I worked with cobalt while employed at a foundry years ago. It’s very dense, it took lots of kV and long exposures to x-ray those castings. Usually it was mixed with nickel or stainless.

  • avatar
    road_pizza

    Didn’t see THAT coming…

  • avatar
    Jeff Weimer

    Peak Oil?

    Forget that,

    Peak cobalt!

  • avatar
    bobmaxed

    If you come around
    No more pain and no regrets
    Watch the sun go brown
    Smoking cobalt cigarettes
    There’s no need to hide
    Taking things the easy way
    If I stay inside
    I might live til Saturday.

    Steely Dan King of the World

  • avatar
    redgolf

    this just in: BP invested $20 million is Israel’s StoreDot, a start up that claims it can charge an electric car in minutes! yep charge up your electric car in the same time it takes to fill up with fuel! powered by organic compounds and nanomaterials. BP’s venture arm invested $5 million in FreeWire a start up that makes mobile electric car charging stations. I wanna say one word to ya, are you listening? ORGANICS !!!


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