Supply chains: building EV batteries
Electric vehicles are powered by, you’ve guessed it, batteries; and being able to build enough of those batteries - and in an environmentally sensitive and sustainable way - is critical if the EV concept is to have any long term traction. But where do we get all the components from to build them? Eva Higginbotham spoke with supply chain expert Arnold Tukker from Leiden University, starting with what materials we need to think most carefully about, and Fully Charged's Robert Llewellyn weighed in...
Arnold - There's lithium, there's nickel, there is cobalt, manganese, and these are really materials you need in large volumes
Eva - And do we have enough of these materials in general?
Arnold - Are the materials there? Likely yes, but the real problem is that our mining infrastructure at this moment is not built for that kind of volume, so you have to ramp it up quite quickly. And mining companies may do that if they know that they can sell the stuff they mine, and if they don't know it, they may not invest. If a new technology comes around and all of a sudden, let's say, we don't need cobalt anymore, well, okay, good luck if you just invested a billion or two in opening a new cobalt mine.
Eva - So is that where we get most of these materials at the moment, like cobalt, we get them through mining?
Arnold - At this moment
Eva - And where are those mines generally located?
Arnold - Yeah, that depends quite a lot on the material you're talking about. When you talk about lithium, Bolivia in Latin America is quite important. Cobalt: it is the Congo, which is, I would say, quite a problematic country, because, let's say, the government doesn't have a lot of control over the country. So one of the problems that you often see in these cases, if you have to get the materials from one or two suppliers, then you create quite quickly a monopoly. If you have to mine it in countries that are not very stable, and then you also get a fairly unstable supply and a difficult supply. So those are a few of the issues that you see when you really want to go for large volumes of small, let's say metals, that you actually, at this point, don't use that often.
Eva - If there are sort of not just practical, but also ethical issues with sourcing some of these materials, why can't we just make batteries that don't require cobalt or don't require some of these materials that are so intertwined with this stuff?
Arnold - I think that all comes down to chemistry. I'm a chemist by training. From my chemistry years I know quite well that if you want to make a certain material with certain capabilities or characteristics, you often need certain mixtures of certain elements. The same happens with batteries. If you really want to have batteries with can store a lot of electricity, at this moment, let's say lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, these batteries are the kind of battery of choice because they can store the most amount of electricity in the smallest space. You have to use these metals because that gives you the performance that we need at this moment.
Eva - And so going from, you know, the cobalt in the ground to the electric vehicle battery ready to go, can you talk me through the supply chains and the people involved in getting it there?
Arnold - So of course you have a mine. That can be fairly professional mines which are well-run and you try to take care of the environment, until let's say more artisan mining that, for instance, happens in the Congo, and then you get these horrible pictures of kids going into a hole and getting the material basically. Then you have, let's say, rock with a certain amount of metal. Then you have to crush the rock, then you have to extract the material in one way or another, and then you have the metal. Then, of course, you have to go to making intermediate products for making the battery. So you see already quite easily, they have 3, 4, 5 big steps in the supply chain before you have your battery. And in each step in the supply chain, you can have your own problems. It can be that for certain metals, the processes to really, let's say, extract the metal in a pure form out of the ore can be quite complicated. So, well, China is fairly strong in that and they actually have the best technologies. On the one hand, they sit on the mining, and all the other hand they sit on the extraction technology. So it can be that again, there you have a kind of monopolist bottleneck.
Chris - Robert Llewellyn is still with us. Robert, do you see this as a problem: availability of the material? Do you think that could cause the growth of the EV market to stall, if we can't lay our hands on enough of these materials?
Robert - I don't think so. I think Arnold Tukker made some really good points there about the difficulties for the mining industry in investing, because there are new battery chemistries and new battery designs being developed now. They're in laboratories at the moment, but certainly within the next five years, we're going to see some completely different battery designs that don't require the more contentious elements. I mean, a huge amount of cobalt is used in oil refining. The oil industry relies very much on cobalt for removing sulphur, particularly from diesel. There's an amazing company in the UK called Benchmark Mineral Intelligence who have a very different take on the availability of minerals around the world and where they're from. For example, most lithium comes from Australia. It doesn't come from Bolivia and Chile, which is the very commonly quoted thing. The largest amounts of most of the materials that we use in electric cars are from Australia and are mined responsibly, in a far more environmentally aware way, let's say.