Lithium-ion batteries revolutionize energy
Skyrockets demand for lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – January 8, 2020
Last updated 6/27/2020 at 4:57am
The advent of the lithium-ion battery at the close of the 20th century has dramatically changed how we live, work and play. This revolutionary transformation, which began by allowing us to put our phones in our pockets and computers under our arms, has expanded to almost every facet of our life – from robot vacuums dutifully keeping our floors clean to zero-emission cars travelling our highways.
While we might not think too much about it, when you add up all the laptops, tablets, phones, drones, drills, saws, lawnmowers, leaf blowers and plethora of other rechargeable electronics, each of us use a lot of lithium-ion batteries.
The biggest drivers of demand for lithium-ion batteries over the coming decades, however, is the growing number of electric vehicles hitting the market, followed by the large batteries needed to store solar and wind energy to feed into the grid when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.
It is largely due to these green energy applications that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences bestowed the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to three scientists who pioneered this rechargeable battery technology – Stanley Whittingham, John Goodenough and Akira Yoshino.
"Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized our lives since they first entered the market in 1991. They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said upon announcing the award.
The wide array of domestic and commercial benefits has dramatically escalated the demand for lithium-ion batteries.
Just five years ago, it took about 55 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of lithium-ion battery storage to power the world's cordless devises, mostly for computers, cell phones and other cordless consumer devises. By 2030, that demand is expected to top 2,000 GWh, with EVs accounting for roughly 85 percent of the usage.
This means the world is going to need a lot more lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel for humanity to continue to unplug from the fossil fuel powered electrical outlets and gas pumps that have been our energy mainstays for the past century.
"Lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel are the key enablers of the lithium ion battery and, in turn, the lithium ion battery is the key enabler of the energy storage revolution," said Benchmark Mineral Intelligence Managing Director Simon Moores, a global expert on lithium-ion battery markets.
If the lithium-ion batteries pioneered by the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry recipients are going to be of the greatest benefit to humankind, however, new sustainable sources of lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel are going to be needed.
This growing demand is putting new strains on the global mining sector scrambling to supply these rechargeable battery ingredients.
One of the reasons miners must work overtime to keep up with the demand being driven by lithium-ion batteries is that mines that produce lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel were limited due to small markets before the EV and green energy revolution took hold.
Another enormous factor is consumers are demanding that the materials needed to store green energy, and power emissions-free vehicles come from ethically and environmentally sound sources.
Today, almost all the graphite in lithium-ion batteries comes from China, a country with a dismal environmental record, and more than 60 percent of cobalt originates in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where human rights abuses and corruption has tainted the metals sourced there.
"Automakers can't afford to ignore this issue of human rights," said Benchmark Mineral Intelligence Senior Analyst Caspar Rawles. "Even if one gram of cobalt is mined by a child, they want to avoid this from an ethical and from a brand-management standpoint. Automakers need to work hard with the supply chain to ensure that doesn't happen."
Using blockchain technology to establish a mine-to-consumer record is one way that battery manufacturers can ensure their customers that the cobalt and other lithium-ion battery ingredients are sourced ethically and sustainably.
The balance of the equation falls on the global mining sector to ensure that enough sustainable battery metals are available to realize the benefits lauded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences when they awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry medals to lithium-ion battery pioneers.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is part of a five-part series on lithium-ion batteries and the forecasted demand for lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel, as well as potential sustainable sources for these critical minerals and metals.