No Shortage of Battery Minerals for EVs

November 25, 2017

New MIT study backs up and underlines what Dan Kammen told me a year ago.


The dramatic rise in production of electric vehicles, coupled with expected growth in the use of grid-connected battery systems for storing electricity from renewable sources, raises a crucial question: Are there enough raw materials to enable significantly increased production of lithium-ion batteries, which are the dominant type of rechargeable batteries on the market?

A new analysis by researchers at MIT and elsewhere indicates that for the near future, there will be no absolute limitations on battery manufacturing due to shortages of the critical metals they require. But, without proper planning, there could be short-term bottlenecks in the supplies of some metals, particularly lithium and cobalt, that could cause temporary slowdowns in production.

The analysis, by professor Elsa Olivetti and doctoral student Xinkai Fu in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Gerbrand Ceder at the University of California at Berkeley, and Gabrielle Gaustad at the Rochester Institute of Technology, appears today in the journal Joule.

Olivetti, who is the Atlantic Richfield Assistant Professor of Energy Studies, says the new journal’s editors asked her to look at possible resource limitations as battery production escalates globally. To do that, Olivetti and her co-authors concentrated on five of the most essential ingredients needed to produce today’s lithium-ion batteries: lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, and carbon in the form of graphite. Other key ingredients, such as copper, aluminum, and some polymers used as membranes, are considered abundant enough that they are not likely to be a limiting factor.

Among those five materials, it was quickly clear that nickel and manganese are used much more widely in other industries; battery production, even if significantly increased, is “not a significant part of the pie,” Olivetti says, so nickel and manganese supplies are not likely to be impacted. Ultimately, the most significant materials whose supply chains could become limited are lithium and cobalt, she says.

For those two elements, the team looked at the diversity of the supply options in terms of geographical distribution, production facilities, and other variables. For lithium, there are two main pathways to production: mining and processing of brines. Of those, production from brine can be ramped up to meet demand much more rapidly, within as little as six or eight months, compared to bringing a new underground mine into production, Olivetti says. Although there might still be disruptions in the supply of lithium, she says, these are unlikely to seriously disrupt battery production.

Cobalt is a bit more complex. Its major source is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has a history of violent conflict and corruption. “That’s been a challenge,” Olivetti says. Cobalt is typically produced as a byproduct of other mining activity. “Often a mine’s revenue comes from nickel, and cobalt is a secondary product,” she says.

But the main potential cause of delays in obtaining new supplies of the mineral comes from not its inherent geographic distribution, but the actual extraction infrastructure. “The delay is in the ability to open new mines,” she says. “With any of these things, the material is out there, but the question is at what price.” To guard against possible disruptions in the cobalt supply, she says, researchers “are trying to move to cathode materials [for lithium-ion batteries] that are less cobalt-dependent.”

The study looked out over the next 15 years, and within that time frame, Olivetti says, there are potentially some bottlenecks in the supply chain, but no serious obstacles to meeting the rising demand. Still, she says, “it’s important for stakeholders to be aware of the bottlenecks,” as unanticipated supply disruptions could put some companies out of business. Companies need to think about alternative sources, and “know where and when to panic.”

And understanding which materials are most subject to disruption could help guide research directions, in deciding “where do we put our development efforts. It does make sense to think of cathodes that use less cobalt,” Olivetti says.

Overall, she says, “in most cases there are reasonable supplies” of the critical materials, “but there are potential challenges that should be approached with eyes wide open. What we tried to present is a framework by which to think about these challenges in a bit more quantitative way than you usually see.”


Researchers around the world are working on “beyond lithium” projects, and the past year has seen several significant breakthroughs. Of course, advances in the lab take years to make their way to the marketplace, but if and when one of these promising technologies can be commercialized, we could see game-changing improvements in the performance and cost of EVs.

One technology that’s been getting a tremendous amount of attention from researchers is the solid-state battery, which uses a solid electrolyte instead of the liquid electrolyte used today. Solid-state batteries could theoretically have double the energy density of current batteries, and last several times longer. They also use a non-flammable electrolyte – usually glass, polymer, or a combination – so they would eliminate the safety issues that plague Li-ion cells.

Lithium-air batteries likewise could offer far greater energy density – maybe as much as 10 times more – but they suffer from poor cycle life. In 2015, Cambridge scientists wowed the battery world with an announcement that they had demonstrated a highly efficient and long-lasting lithium-oxygen battery. Alas, researchers from several universities and national labs have since been unable to duplicate the original results.

Other promising battery chemistries use other elements in place of lithium. Sodium batteries powered Jules Verne’s futuristic submarine in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” More recently, in 2015, researchers created a prototype sodium-ion battery in the industry-standard 18650 cylindrical format.

According to a recent article in the Nikkei Asian Review, battery research has seen a big shift in recent years. At one time, nearly half of the presentations at the Battery Symposium in Japan were about fuel cells and Li-ion battery cathode materials. But since 2012, these topics have been supplanted by presentations about solid-state, lithium-air and non-lithium batteries.

Toyota has been focusing on solid-state and Li-air batteries. At the latest Battery Symposium, battery researcher Shinji Nakanishi discussed a scenario for transitioning from Li-ion batteries to solid-state and then Li-air batteries. “We want our electric cars to go 500 km” on a single charge, he said. “And for this, we want rechargeable batteries that can generate 800 to 1,000 watt-hours per liter.” That would be two to three times the energy density of today’s best Li-ion batteries.

Panasonic, Tesla’s battery supplier, is also taking a hard look at solid-state technology. “We think the existing technology can still extend the energy density of Li-ion batteries by 20% to 30%,” President Kazuhiro Tsuga told Nikkei. “But there is a trade-off between energy density and safety. So if you look for even more density, you have to think about additional safety technology as well. Solid-state batteries are one answer.”

Engineers have been pushing the limits of Li-ion technology for decades. Today’s best Li-ion cells can reach an energy density of about 300 watts per kilogram, which is getting close to the theoretical maximum. “Existing Li-ion batteries still have room to improve their energy density because you can raise the density by introducing a nickel-based cathode material, so you can expect the batteries will still be used in the next few years,” said battery expert Naoaki Yabuuchi of Tokyo Denki University. He expects lithium-ion technology to reach its limits around 2020.



5 Responses to “No Shortage of Battery Minerals for EVs”

  1. Glenn Martin Says:

    Oh sure. we have enough Lithium but do we have enough ions?

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    From my personal fantasyland: Congo develops a stable economy by establishing a value-added front end to its mineral-extraction and starts exporting high-quality processed cobalt materials (like processed cobalt rounds) rather than raw ore.

    I can dream, can’t I?

  3. andrewfez Says:

    I went to Seeking Alpha just now to refresh my memory on Li+ investing, but got distracted because there were actually two articles on renewable energy investment and climate change adaptation investment on the front page; one even in the top 10 reads (which refreshes every few seconds, so if it’s there, it’s trending). We’re not in 2008 anymore, it feels.

  4. toddinnorway Says:

    The existence of enough of the necessary minerals in the earth’s crust or ocean is clear. What is worrying is that industry is not investing in new mines or extraction facilities to keep up with growing demand of particularly lithium and cobalt. There will definitely be a period in the near-term of raw material supply bottlenecks that will limit production of Li-io batteries and all the products that use them.

  5. John Empsall Says:

    Here is a source for more information on Cobalt supplies.

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