Materials Science

High demand for Li-ion batteries can affect cobalt supply

Print edition : April 10, 2020

While the greater use of electric vehicles might benefit the environment, further growth hinges on continued availability of critical battery components such as cobalt. Cell phones and other electronics also depend on the element’s availability. Supplies of cobalt are adequate in the short term, but there could be shortages down the road if refining and recycling are not ramped up or made more efficient, according to research published in “Environmental Science & Technology” of the American Chemical Society.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) provides roughly 60 per cent of all mined cobalt, according to the paper. The element is often recovered as a by-product from mining copper and nickel, meaning that the demand and pricing for those metals affect the availability of cobalt. Half of the current supply of cobalt is incorporated into cathodes for lithium-ion batteries, and many of those batteries are used in consumer electronics and electric vehicles. Demand is increasing for these vehicles and their batteries. To determine potential cobalt supply and demand through 2030, Elsa Olivetti and co-workers analysed variables, including electric vehicle demand; cobalt mining, refining and recycling capacity; battery chemistry trends; socio-economic and political trends; and the feasibility of substituting other materials for cobalt.

These variables could be affected by political instability in the DRC, policy decisions favouring electric vehicles, disruptions in China (which refines around half of the cobalt supply), and fluctuations in copper and nickel prices. The researchers feel cobalt supply is adequate in the short term. They estimate that supply will reach 320-460 thousand tonnes by 2030, while demand will reach 235-430 thousand tonnes. The team recommends that the industry invest in additional efficient refining and recycling capacity so it can continue to meet demand.