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Carmakers’ electric dreams depend on supplies of rare minerals

July 31, 2017

By Paul Homewood



The Guardian highlights another obstacle in the road for electric car makers:




Britain last week joined France in pledging to ban sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 in an attempt to cut toxic vehicle emissions. The move to battery-powered vehicles has been a long time coming. Environmental campaigners claim that charging cars and vans from the grid, like a laptop, is sure to be cleaner than petrol or diesel power. The government agrees and says it will invest more than £800m in driverless and clean technology, and a further £246m in battery technology research.

BMW plans to build a fully electric version of the Mini at Cowley in Oxford from 2019. Volvo announced earlier this month that from the same year, all its new models will have an electric motor.

Huge potential profits await those that can tap into this burgeoning market. Transparency Market Research estimated the global lithium-ion battery market at $30bn in 2015, rising to more than $75bn by 2024. Morgan Stanley analysts expect global car sales to rise by 50% by 2050 to more than 130m units a year, and estimates that electric vehicles will account for at least 47% of that total.

Lithium-ion batteries have long been used to power smartphones, laptops and other gadgets. Scaled-up versions are now being developed for electric vehicles. These batteries should last for at least 10 years, or 150,000 miles, until they need to be replaced.

However, the road to a promised land of zero-emission vehicles is littered with speed bumps and red lights that threaten to seriously slow the progress of the electric car. Battery makers are struggling to secure supplies of key ingredients in these large power packs – mainly cobalt and lithium. The hopes of both battery and vehicle manufacturers hang on the mining sector finding more deposits of these precious minerals.


Trent Mell of First Cobalt, a Toronto-based mining company, said: “Cobalt is tricky because of the scarcity of supply. There aren’t a lot of producers. We’re relying on more discoveries. It’s out there: we’ve just got to find it.”

The First Cobalt boss added that his company was currently confident of making discoveries in Idaho and Ontario. Investors see a chance of cashing in on the mineral’s key role: the price of shares in the Canadian firm has risen from C$0.06 to C$0.76 in the past year.

This is the mother of supply chain headaches, and one hi-tech car manufacturers and electronics firms could do without. At the heart of the global cobalt trade is Glencore. The metals and mining giant produces almost a third (28,300 tonnes) of the world’s annual supply. As much as 65% of this global supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where cobalt production has fallen this year because of the unstable political situation. This sparked a 90% jump in the price of cobalt to a peak of $61,000 a tonne earlier this month.



Inside the Katanga Mining copper and cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo.




Inside the Katanga Mining copper and cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photograph: Getty Images


Macquarie Research predicts that trouble in the DRC and rising demand for electric vehicles will lead to a four-year-long cobalt shortage. Writing in academic journal The Conversation, Ben McLellan, senior research fellow at Kyoto University, warned further: “Manufacturers such as electric vehicle makers should be concerned that the supply of one of the key mineral components, or the processing and refining infrastructure, could become too centralised in a single country. Without diverse source options, the possibility of supply restriction becomes more likely.”

The squeeze on cobalt has sent car giants such as Volkswagen scurrying to lock in supply deals with the likes of Glencore. First Cobalt’s Mell said: “I think there is going to be some jockeying for supply.”

Volkswagen, which had been slow to develop battery-powered vehicles, it is now pushing through an ambitious programme as it seeks to regain the trust of customers and investors after the diesel emissions scandal. The German manufacturer wants to launch more than 10 electrified models by the end of next year and is aiming at 30 battery-powered models by 2025. It plans to increase electric-car sales to a million a year by 2025, from tens of thousands at present.

Demand for other key battery ingredients, such as graphite and lithium carbonate, is also outstripping supply. The current shortage of lithium has seen prices double since 2015. Global lithium demand was 184,000 tonnes in 2015, with battery demand accounting for 40%. Analysts at Deutsche Bank expect demand to increase to 534,000 tonnes by 2025, with battery manufacturers accounting for 70%. Lithium deposits are found mostly in China and Bolivia.


The report goes on to look at possible alternative technologies. But it is clear that, as with the rest of decarbonisation strategies, we are stepping into the dark with no idea where we are going.

  1. Joe Public permalink
    July 31, 2017 12:29 pm

    Euan Mearns has a posting on Lithium today:

    “Lithium: Reserves, Use, Future Demand and Price”

  2. Russ Wood permalink
    July 31, 2017 12:37 pm

    I wonder how long that this “green dream” will last before all of its long-suffering victims (i.e. us) start looking at lampposts and fetching rope…

    • August 1, 2017 7:23 am

      Piano wire.

      I love the comment at WUWT:
      “Through these absurd actions the UK and European governments have demonstrated that they are absolutely incompetent at defining and implementing policy regarding climate and energy issues and that the politicians in charge are distinguished by their ignorance, gullibility and climate alarmist stupidity.”

  3. CheshireRed permalink
    July 31, 2017 12:51 pm

    Watch out for the next big investment opportunity scam, which will be in lithium and other precious metals used for batteries. Tread with care!

  4. July 31, 2017 1:31 pm

    The Guardian/BBC and others continue to mislead about the supposed “ban” on petrol and diesel cars, presumably hoping to fool people into thinking that petrol/diesel ENGINES will be banned, or maybe like Harrabin they heard what they wanted to hear. Petrol and diesel will continue as fuels for the simple reasons that they can be stored and transported with ease, and have a high energy density.

  5. Dung permalink
    July 31, 2017 2:05 pm

    I tried to follow this story up by reading about one of the most important elements in Lithium-Ion batteries, Cobalt and it was a shock!
    Most of the Cobalt comes from the Congo and the majority of that Cobalt is not from industrial mines but from ‘Artisanal’ mines, it is all dug by hand. The miners are paid peanuts and their homes are smaller than small garden sheds with no running water or electricity. The toxic effects on these miners are extreme but it is their only source of money.
    When you look at the limitations we put on the mining of shale gas because of safety concerns and consider that this Cobalt is part of the supposed solution to fossil fuel, you realise how far from sanity we have strayed.

    • Athelstan permalink
      July 31, 2017 3:42 pm

      Another greenie desperation dogmatism and pollution wot pollution? = out of sight and ‘out of mind’ – figuratively and literally.

      Another swivel eyed lunatics Greenie thought jam, when are exploitative processes not exploitative processes? hmm, just think on the mining, shipping, smelting and production which entails massive fossil fueled power requisites no probs – PV arrays, birdmincers and toy town cars – you’re all so worth it ……consciences salved!

      and boy are my green credentials burnished brightly; bliar, any NGO, anti frack, the UN-EU, the green tosser [call me dave], Gove, Miliband, May, liblavCONs… are you listening?

      The green tosserati, when does logic get a look in?

      Never, that’s when.

    • spetzer86 permalink
      July 31, 2017 3:43 pm

      Green dreams are grown over the bodies of the poor, particularly if those poor are in third-world countries. Look at the ecological impacts in China and other areas digging up the minerals needed to progress the renewable dream.

    • Valued Customer permalink
      August 2, 2017 1:13 am

      Not to mention that the mining of cobalt is so profitable that it has fueled one of the most terrible holocausts in the history of the world. An estimated 10 million have died in and around the DRC during the 1990s, largely as a result of being enslaved by warlords vying for the big bucks paid by manufacturers for the mineral.

      I consider this typical of the environmental movement generally. The road to hell is paved with the bodies of those that injected reason into debates of the good intentioned.

      Valued Customer.

  6. bob nielsen permalink
    July 31, 2017 2:06 pm

    There is no shortage of lithium ore. Bolivia has trillions of tons of it. However the mining is controlled by the Govt and thus the crime families that dominate politics (same as every country!) and as a result they restrict supply to inflate prices. A lithium based economy will be even more at the mercy of cartels than our oil based economies vulnerability to OPEC. Other rare earth elements are increasingly controlled by the Chinese Govt cartel. As soon as we become battery dependant the extortion will start – out of the frying pan ,,,

  7. July 31, 2017 4:36 pm

    Good ol’ Grauniad! We will miss it if/when it passes away! That’s why I make a modest monthly donation!

    • Dung permalink
      July 31, 2017 6:09 pm

      The Guardian is a Liberal Left basket case IMHO but each to his own 🙂

      • July 31, 2017 6:15 pm

        @Dung, on the whole I agree! But I have yet to see my staple Economist or FT, let alone Conservative Home, draw my attention to such an obvious flaw in the Greenie’s case!

  8. July 31, 2017 5:36 pm

    The first rechargeable (lead-acid) battery was constructed in 1859. The iron-nickel battery was invented by Edison 42 years later. Four years later in 1908 he added lithium, the first use in batteries.Seventy years later, commercial lithium batteries arrived, so they’ve been around for about 40 years. Looking at that very brief history, there is almost certainly another innovation on the way, using less expensive and more readily available materials. I don’t think we need to panic!

    • dave permalink
      July 31, 2017 8:31 pm


      There are no gaps in the Periodic Table.

  9. July 31, 2017 5:40 pm

    Toyota is looking at solid-state batteries, according to one report.

    ‘Toyota spokeswoman Kayo Doi said the company would not comment on specific product plans but added that it aimed to commercialize all-solid-state batteries by the early 2020s.’

    Greater range and faster charging times are claimed as advantages. Technical hurdles remain though.

    • Dung permalink
      July 31, 2017 6:13 pm

      I can have no complaints if they produce a longer range electric car with decent pertformance but That does not solve the power generation problem completely.

    • August 1, 2017 8:17 am

      This is the sales pitch…

      ‘The use of solid state electrolytes in batteries will help to reduce battery size, allow rapid charge/discharge rates (allowing motorists to recharge their vehicles in a matter of minutes rather than hours) and increase the length of the battery’s life.’

      Things like cost, safety and ease of production — not known.

  10. July 31, 2017 6:51 pm

    There are four different LiB cathode chemistries. Cobalt is a main constituent in only one of the four. For example A123 systems uses LiFePo4. So cobalt is not a primary concern except for specialty steels. And there are major rare earth deposits in Australia, and in California at the Mountain Pass mine. Problem is they are not economic given China ignores most environmental processing consequences such as low grade radioactivity.

    • It doesn't add up... permalink
      July 31, 2017 9:44 pm

      It just takes a high enough price spike to make a resource economic, so long as it exists in the first place.

    • Dung permalink
      August 1, 2017 8:54 am

      China gets the bulk of the Cobalt production of the Congo, it also deliberately chooses sources based on the ‘artisan’ mines because it is so cheap -.-

  11. July 31, 2017 7:10 pm

    It is possible (I don’t say certain) that zinc batteries may yet be perfected.

    Zinc provides about the same performance as lithium, and there is no shortage of it.

    • July 31, 2017 9:29 pm

      Been worked on for two decades. The great hope was zinc/air rechargeable secondaries. Alas, no one has yet solved the dendrite formation (leading to short circuit) problem. The idea of zinc primaries exchanged at ‘filling stations’ was always a silly nonstarter economically.
      The only two energy storage technologies that might someday solve the EV range/charge time problems are LiB solid state ‘glass’ electrolytes (Toyota and Goodenough at U. T. Austin) and Fisker Nanotech LiC (see my guest post on that at Climate Etc.). Both very early and speculative. With energy storage, the devil is usually in the mass production details.

  12. Simon from Ashby permalink
    July 31, 2017 8:49 pm

    Peak Lithium?

    • July 31, 2017 9:32 pm

      Probably not in a physical sense, unlike oil. Lithium is the 20th most abundant element, not a ‘finite’ fossil fuel. But like peak oil as a consequence of geophysics, the production cost may rise to the point where there is an economic peak.

  13. It doesn't add up... permalink
    July 31, 2017 9:49 pm

    Katanga, my friend! isn’t so funny now Lenny Henry?

  14. Bruce of Newcastle permalink
    August 1, 2017 12:17 am

    Technically there’s no problem for EV battery components.

    Here in Australia a boom in lithium exploration is underway amongst mining companies, with usually several reports appearing in the company releases every day. In short there are oodles of lithium around, now that people are looking for it and the prices are attractive.

    The mineral of interest is spodumene. Vast deposits of that mineral exist around the world. Certainly I’ve seen several million tonnes of contained lithium reported for discoveries in the Pilbara and other mineral provinces in Australia. Canada has a lot of it too. Even Austria has a deposit that an Aussie mining company is looking at.

    Then regarding cobalt, that isn’t required. It’s entirely possible to use the Li-iron-phosphate system instead of the Li-cobalt one. The catch is that the energy density of a LiFePO4 battery is about 10% lower than the one using cobalt. Iron and phosphorus are extremely common though, and are cheap.

    Of course a battery which is 10% more anaemic than the Tesla batteries is a problem for EVs. But since EVs are glorified golf carts anyway, a 10% hit to their performance is fairly minimal. The point is there’s nothing to stop EV makers from using LiFePO4 batteries, and lithium is turning out to be quite readily available in sufficient quantities.

    One mined mineral which isn’t commented upon much is graphite. That too is undergoing a boom, for Li-ion battery anodes. There seems to be plenty of it around though, and as graphite is just pure carbon it would probably be feasible to synthesise it if natural battery-suitable supplies are limited.

    Since global warming isn’t happening much, and empirical ECS for CO2 is too low to be dangerous, the EV manufacturers are all going to lose their shirts anyway. So buy some popcorn and enjoy the crash when it comes. Just don’t invest in lithium, EVs, graphite or cobalt mining unless you like flying with Icarus.

  15. tom0mason permalink
    August 1, 2017 6:09 am

    Efficiently maximizing performance while minimizing materials use, at a cost customers will pay, is what a free and open market is all about. The use of inefficient methods such as subsidy, and providing products without the performance that customers expects is project doomed to failure. Green products are all about the latter not the former.

  16. Athelstan permalink
    August 1, 2017 7:23 am

    OOOOOOhhhh look!

    Just in time for Xmas – bless ’em and never forget it’s all a big ferking CARTEL, extraordinarily bu88ered about by enforced government diktat – making the domestic/business consumer pay for the Green Fairies moonbeam technology and as God will witness it, absolutely: condemning the nation to economic suicide via riding the green crock.

    British gas upping its electricity tariff by 7.3% according to al beeb and……who am I to argue with ballpark calculation.

    Fact is, by the time we are all forced into electric buggies, no bugger except the public sector aristocracy, the virtue signallers enforcement brigade rich Marxists-green billionaires club, various Russian oligarchs and the property robber barons will be able to afford such luxuries such as electric vehicular transport…………….

    isn’t rationing lecky and gas all part of the fekking plan?

    To ‘put the little man in his place – right down at heel’ – they call it progressive politics, I call it lunacy on a scale unimaginable – even just twenty short years ago, the neo Puritans are with us and running the show even at British Gas.

  17. Valued Customer permalink
    August 2, 2017 1:06 am

    “Demand for other key battery ingredients, such as graphite and lithium carbonate, is also outstripping supply.”

    Lithium in short supply, okay. Graphite, not so much. Graphite is carbon. While manufacturing graphite is a choke point on supply, the source, carbon, is not so limited. Indeed, sequestering carbon (the apparent goal of every climate alarmist) by manufacturing graphite would seem to be a dream come true for those that fear nothing more than hot air.

    Valued Customer

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