Modern humans in the developed world today are used to using some form of rechargeable battery, whether it is in a mobile phone, a laptop or an electric vehicle. Most of us don’t think about the contents of the battery other than the amount of charge it holds! However, the internal guts of these batteries may well become the foundation of new wars as the need and therefore price of certain metals changes with demand.
Inside a battery there are several metals, combining to ensure that the electricity is stored and delivered as efficiently as possible. As oil was a critical factor in some regional disputes during the last century, we may see a similar pattern happening with natural materials for battery usage. The structure of the battery hasn’t changed in its basic form, there is an anode (typically made from graphite), a cathode (made of various different metals) and a solution that helps to carry the charge – the electrolyte which in the case of car batteries is made using Lithium Salts.
Motoring Weekly has written about Lithium as a base for batteries over the years. It is extensively used in rechargeable batteries and is a light metal and an ever increasing amount of the material that is mined ends up in batteries. Lithium, as an element, is spread all over the world and they have even found some in space. However in recent years, Australia has become the largest miner of the metal which is extracted from other materials. Chile comes next in production volume followed by Argentina and China, albeit a long way off the top two. Lithium is extracted from igneous minerals – in other words, cooled volcanic eruptions. There is an estimated 16M tons of Lithium still in the ground, to put that into perspective, Australia only mines around 18,000 tons a year.
This metal is a meteoric iron, it is found with copper and nickel and was originally a byproduct, however in recent years it has taken on a much bigger place in mining. It apparently makes up only 0.0029% of the Earth’s crust with the largest deposits being found in the middle of Africa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who mine around 64,000 tons a year. Russia and Australia are the next biggest miners with around 5,500 tons each. There is an estimated 7.1M tons still left to dig up. What is concerning many people though, is that China is the biggest refiner of the materials extracted from the ground taking most of the DRC output.
Part of the concern is that with 80% of the market for the refined product moving through one country, the price has tripled in the last few years, putting pressure on the price of any product that uses it. Apple iPhones, for example, use Cobalt exclusively as the cathode in their batteries. The big concern then is that if the market for electric vehicles really takes off, then this will become a market battleground because China could limit the access to this material simply through pricing policies. Tesla, for example, use Cobalt with Nickel and Aluminium in their batteries and the increased pricing for this material will end up in the sale price of the vehicle.
There is now a push to find another refining plant in a safe country, however with China buying the majority of the mined material, it is a difficult issue. With the ever increasing price, other countries are trying to figure out how they can extract more and refine it themselves.
This metal has many uses as an oxide – one of which is to help improve the octane of fuel. Another use is as the cathode in the Lithium-ion batteries found on the Nissan Leaf. Manganese in its raw state is very widespread – estimates suggest that there are billions of tons of the stuff spread over the world. Some of it is on the seabed which makes the extraction expensive and then it also needs to be refined into a material that is usable. South Africa, China and Australia are the biggest miners of the ore.
Nickel and Aluminium are the other two metals typically used in batteries and have a much wider availability. Therefore they are the cheapest materials. With the rise of the electric vehicle market being pushed along by various governments, the boffins are keen to find better ways of using the existing natural resources and even finding new ones that can be used more efficiently.
The next twenty years will see this part of the industry evolve far faster than other technologies. It is a great time to be associated with this evolution!
The image is the Broken Hill mine, taken from the Miners Memorial.