Research published in the journal Nature Reviews Materials suggests how lithium and cobalt, both fundamental components of lithium-ion batteries (LIBs), could become seriously critical.
Researchers at the Helmholtz Institute Ulm (HIU) of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany, show that both elements could become critically low. Cobalt-free battery technologies, including post-lithium technologies based on non-critical elements such as sodium, but also magnesium, zinc, calcium and aluminium, represent possibilities to decrease the dependency and avoid the criticality of lithium and cobalt supplies in the long term.
Cobalt is a fundamental component of the cathode in present LIBs, determining the high energy and power density as well as the long lifetime. However, as outlined in the article by Dr Christoph Vaalma et al., the element is facing scarcity and toxicity issues.
Professor Stefano Passerini, who supervised the study together with Dr Daniel Buchholz at the Helmholtz Institute Ulm, said: “In general, the rapidly growing market penetration of LIBs for electromobility applications, such as fully electric cars, will lead to an increasing demand for raw materials, especially with respect to lithium and cobalt.”
The scenario-based analysis until 2050 suggests that the shortage and price increase of cobalt are likely to happen, since the demand for cobalt for batteries may double. However, the demand for lithium is not expected to be as high. Nonetheless, the production will have to be strongly upscaled (possibly more than ten times, depending on the scenario) to match the future demand.
According to the researchers, due to geographical concentration, it gives rise to strong concerns about the possible shortage and associated price increase of LIBs in the future.
Buchholz said: “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.”
Passerini, HIU deputy director, emphasises: “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.”
The results of the scenario analysis
These results are confirmed by the global scenario for battery applications in the field of electromobility until the year 2050. HIU system analyst Dr Marcel Weil said: “The future availability of cobalt for the mass production of LIBs has to be classified as very critical, which is also evident from the price increase of cobalt higher than 120% within one year.”