Bad news for batteries: cobalt and lithium supplies ‘critical’ by 2050

Global supplies for lithium and cobalt - key elements for producing batteries - could become critical by 2050, according to analysis by researchers at the Helmholtz Institute Ulm (HIU) in Germany.

The research team suggests that cobalt-free battery technologies - including post-lithium technologies based on non-critical elements such as sodium, magnesium, zinc, calcium and aluminium - represent the best way to avoid supply issues in the long term.

Besides lithium as charge carrier, cobalt is a fundamental component of the cathode in present lithium-ion batteries (LIBs), determining the high energy and power density, as well as the long lifetime. However, this element is suffering from scarcity and toxicity issues.

“In general, the rapidly growing market penetration of lithium-ion batteries for electromobility applications, such as fully electric cars, will lead to an increasing demand for raw materials, especially with respect to lithium and cobalt”, said Professor Stefano Passerini, who supervised the study.

Their scenario-based analysis until 2050 for various applications of batteries shows that the shortage and price increase of cobalt are likely to occur, since the cobalt demand by batteries might be twice as high as today’s identified reserves.

In contrast, today’s lithium reserves are expected to be much less strained, but the production will have to be strongly upscaled (possibly more than ten times, depending on the scenario) to match the future demand.

However, both elements additionally suffer from strong geographical concentration, particularly in countries which are reported to be less politically stable. According to the researchers, this gives rise to strong concerns about a possible shortage and associated price increase of LIBs in the near future.

“It is therefore indispensable to expand the research activities towards alternative battery technologies in order to decrease these risks and reduce the pressure on cobalt and lithium reserves”, said Dr Daniel Buchholz at HIU.

Passerini said: “Post-lithium systems are especially appealing for electromobility and stationary applications. This is why it is both very important and urgent to unlock their potential and develop these innovative, high-energy batteries towards market maturity”.

In addition, the study recommends the establishment of a battery economy with a high rate of recycling to decrease the pressure on critical materials.

Last year, one company started reusing old electric vehicle batteries to provide charging stations for electrically-powered cars. 

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