Peak Cobalt

Preface. I don’t think electric vehicles are going to happen for reasons specified in these related articles.  I’ve left out all the posts in Peak Everything dealing with important, rare earth, and lithium minerals from this list plus the posts in peak everything about important and rare minerals.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

Related Articles

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

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A shortage of cobalt could create a bottleneck for electric vehicles.  Most of these rely on lithium batteries, prompting concern about lithium supplies (see Peak Lithium posts here). It’s said by many there are 400 years of lithium left, but much of this is in minerals that will be very expensive to get it out of. We’re getting the easy stuff now.

The battery industry currently uses 42% of cobalt production.  The remaining 58 percent is used in diverse industrial and military applications such as jet engines that rely exclusively on the material.  They can afford to pay regardless of the price, which battery makers can’t afford to do.

But guess what? Lithium batteries also need cobalt. The best lithium battery cathodes (negative electrodes) all contain cobalt.

If 10 million EV sales are made in 2025, the cobalt required would be 330,000 metric tons, but the supply then is expected to be at most 290,000 metric tons. In 2015, 124,000 metric tons were produced, so triple the current supply must somehow happen.

There are seven major obstacles to overcome:

  1. Cobalt is a by-product of copper and nickel mining, so its production depends on the demand for those metals. But copper and nickel prices are plunging, making many deposits uneconomic.
  2. Even if new primary cobalt mines come online, exploration, licensing and development take years and billions of dollars.
  3. So few countries produce cobalt, 60% comes from the politically unstable Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has 49% of cobalt reserves. China has a controlling interest in the main mine producing cobalt, so at some point they might stop selling cobalt to keep their own electric car industry going. They have controlling interest in two other mines as well.
  4. If cobalt prices go up, the price of EV will go up, because lithium batteries use a lot of cobalt — the Tesla 85 KWh battery needs 17.6 (8 kg) of cobalt.
  5. and the number sold go down
  6. If there’s a global recession, depression, or crash, the demand for copper and nickel will dry up, as will the capital to build new cobalt mines.
  7. It’s not ethical: A large share of the country’s cobalt exports comes from “artisanal” mines — those dug by locals under the control of various strongmen. Child labor and harsh exploitation are rife, according to an Amnesty International report released last month.

Recycling lithium batteries is rarely done, it’s too complicated. Even if it were at a higher rate and using yet to be invented cheaper processes, recycling wouldn’t make a dent until 10 or more years after the mass-market penetration of EVs.

Maybe if aluminum or something cheaper and more abundant can be found to substitute for cobalt the situation will be less dire, but we’ve been trying to improve batteries 205 years and they are only 5 times more powerful, so this can’t be counted on.  Each element has very specific special properties that can’t be substituted for something else.

This is why these applications don’t use common, cheap, abundant minerals, and use these, most of which are scarcer than cobalt:

Rare Earth metals are used in many products:

  1. Magnets (Neodymium, Praseodymium, Terbium, Dysprosium): Motors, disc drives, MRI, power generation, microphones and speakers, magnetic refrigeration
  2. Metallurgical alloys (Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Yttrium): NimH batteries, fuel cells, steel, lighter flints, super alloys, aluminum/magnesium
  3. Phosphors (Europium, Yttrium, Terbium, Neodymium, Erbium, Gadolinium, Cerium, Praseodymium): display phosphors CRT, LPD, LCD; fluorescent lighting, medical imaging, lasers, fiber optics
  4. Glass and Polishing (Cerium, Lanthanum, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Gadolinium, Erbium, Holmium): polishing compounds, decolorizers, UV resistant glass, X-ray imaging
  5. Catalysts (Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium): petroleum refining, catalytic converter, diesel additives, chemical processing, industrial pollution scrubbing
  6. Other applications:
  • Nuclear (Europium, Gadolinium, Cerium, Yttrium, Sm, Erbium)
  • Defense (Neodymium, Praseodymium, Dysprosium, Terbium, Europium, Yttrium, Lanthanum, Lutetium, Scandium, Samarium)
  • Water Treatment
  • Pigments
  • Fertilizers
  • Fuel cells (SOFC use lanthaneum, cerium, prasedymium)

8 Rare Earth Metals are used in hybrid electric vehiclesSource: Ree applications in a hybrid electric vehicle. Molycorp Inc. 2010

  1. Cerium: UV cut glass, Glass and mirrors, polishing powder, LCD screen, catalytic converter, hybrid NiMH battery, Diesel fuel additive
  2. Dysprosium: Hybrid electric motor and generator
  3. Europium: LCD screen
  4. Lanthanum: Catalytic Converter, Hybrid NiMH battery, diesel fuel additive
  5. Neodymium: magnets in 25+ electric motors throughout vehicle, Headlight Glass, Hybrid electric motor and generator
  6. Praseodymium: Hybrid electric motor and generator
  7. Terbium: Hybrid electric motor and generator
  8. Yttrium: LCD screen, component sensors

References

Bershidsky, L. Oct 17, 2017. Electric Car Makers have an Africa problem. Automakers find it hard to lock in the price of cobalt for batteries. Bloomberg.

Friedemann, A. 2014. High-tech can’t last: Limited minerals and metals essential for wind, solar, microchips, cars, and other high-tech gadgets.  Energyskeptic.com

Gandon, S. Jan 1, 2017. No Cobalt, no Tesla? Techcrunch.com

Patel, P. January 2018. Could Cobalt choke our vehicle future? Demand for the metal, which is critical to EV batteries, could soon outstrip supply. Scientific American.

 

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4 Responses to Peak Cobalt

  1. NJF says:

    I think your blog is great, this stuff slips under the radar of the public eye and it’s definitely extremely discouraging.

    Do you have any posts planned for potential super capacitor technologies, or room for improvement? I am under the impression that the public is being deliberately misleading in terms of how much better batteries are really going to get, but I don’t know if super capacitors have any future.

    Thanks and Godspeed.

  2. Jouleian says:

    Any hope for supercapacitor technology? I am sure there are fundamental limits here as well…

    • energyskeptic says:

      They’re too short-term (and way too expensive). “Capacitors and superconducting magnetic energy storage (SMES) are rapid response technologies capable only of providing short-term discharge.” Read all about capacitors and much more in the Congressional Research Servis 210 page “Energy Storage for Power Grids and Electric Transportation: A Technology Assessment” by Paul W. Parfomak March 27, 2012