Thursday, 22 February 2018

Stop Worrying About Lithium, Start Worrying about Cobalt

How the Energy Transition is Critically Dependent on a Failing State in Africa

I recently wrote a blog about how much Lithium we might need to make all the batteries to electrify transport, and whether we might run out of the stuff.  It's natural that people focus on Lithium - after all, the favoured battery technology is called "Lithium-ion", but  it turns out that Cobalt is a much greater concern.

Cobalt is a crucial element of many types of Lithium-ion battery cathodes.  The first Lithium-ion battery was commercialised by Sony and the cathode was based on Lithium Cobalt Oxide (LCO).  This type of battery is still widely used in electronic devices.

One of the most common types of Lithium ion battery for electric powertrain applications and power storage is the NCA lithium ion battery which contains lithium oxide in combination with nickel, cobalt and aluminium in the cathode together with a graphite anode.  This type of battery has higher specific energy.  Different manufacturers have their own 'recipes' but typical proportions for the cathode are:

Li(Ni 0.85, Co 0.1, Al 0.05)O2

Cobalt has atomic weight of 59 (compared to Lithium at 7), so although cobalt is present in the ratio of 1/10 the number of atoms in the battery, you need a similar mass of Cobalt as Lithium in the battery - around 600g of Cobalt for every kg of Lithium.

In my previous blog, we estimated the quantity of Lithium to electrify the world's fleet of passenger cars as 13.2 million tonnes, which would imply that there's a requirement of 7.8 million tonnes of Cobalt to achieve the same goal.

How Much Cobalt?

The United States Geographical Survey (USGS) estimates the world reserves of Cobalt at 7.1 million tonnes.  The situation is similar to that of Lithium in that identified reserves of Cobalt are about the same size as the amount needed to electrify the whole world fleet of cars.  Just like for Lithium, it is likely that once there's a strong demand for the material, exploration will result in the identification of other locations and technological development will convert known resources into exploitable reserves.

Unlike Lithium though, take a look at where in the world Cobalt is found.

Lithium is spread around politically stable countries such as Chile and Australia.  By contrast, half of the world's identified Cobalt reserves and more than half of global production comes from The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

This mineral-rich central african country has suffered almost continuous conflicts since 1996, including civil war, invasion and spillover from conflicts in adjacent countries such as Rwanda.  Largely unreported in the West, the situation is desperate with estimates ranging from 1m to 5.5m dying as a result of the wars and associated famine and disease in the last twenty years.  Foreign businesses have curtailed operations due to uncertainty, lack of infrastructure, corruption, inflation and the uncertain legal framework.

The latest news is not good.  Joseph Kaliba, the country's President since his father was assassinated in 2001 finished his last term in 2016, but still clings to power.  Currently 10 of the 26 provinces in the country are suffering from civil war.

Add a proposed new law that could increase government royalties on 'strategic' minerals such as Cobalt to levels as high as 10% and concerns about child labour and human rights abuses in Cobalt mines in DRC, and the outlook is extremely troubling.

Assault and Battery

So what does this mean for battery storage and electric vehicles?  Well, war, bloodshed and chaos doesn't always mean that the product doesn't get out of the ground, after all, bullets, guns and general carnage has to be financed somehow.  Whichever warlord is currently in charge of the area where the mines are will likely as not keep the Cobalt coming for a world hungry for battery storage.  Whether the world can turn a blind eye to batteries financing war is another matter.

However, emerging battery chemistries may reduce the need for Cobalt, and new sources may come on line as demand and prices rise, but these are not quick fixes.  In the short term we must hope that DRC avoids the worst.

So, if you are ever asked "is there enough Lithium in the world for all these electric cars and batteries?" the correct answer is "Sure thing,  but don't ask about Cobalt."

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