What investors need to know about modern battery technology, including raw material supply, demand, and future applications.
Batteries are more powerful and reliable than ever, and costs have come down dramatically over years. As a result, the market for electric vehicles is expected to explode to 20 million plug-in EV sales per year by 2030.
To power these vehicles, millions of new battery packs will need to be built. The lithium-ion battery market is expected to grow at a 21.7% rate annually in terms of the actual energy capacity required. It was 15.9 GWh in 2015, but will be a whopping 93.1 GWh by 2024.
DISSECTING THE LITHIUM-ION
While there are many exciting battery technologies out there, we will focus on the innards of lithium-ion batteries as they are expected to make up the vast majority of the total rechargeable battery market for the near future.
Each lithium-ion cell contains three major parts:
While the anode and electrolytes are pretty straightforward as far as lithium-ion technology goes, it is the cathode where most developments are being made.
- Anode (natural or synthetic graphite)
- Electrolyte (lithium salts
- Cathode (differing formulations)
Lithium isn’t the only metal that goes into the cathode – other metals like cobalt, manganese, aluminum, and nickel are also used in different formulations. Here’s four cathode chemistries, the metal proportions (excluding lithium), and an example of what they are used for:
While manganese and aluminum are important for lithium-ion cathodes, they are also cheaper metals with giant markets. This makes them fairly easy to procure for battery manufacturers.
Lithium, graphite, and cobalt, are all much smaller and less-established markets – and each has supply concerns that remain unanswered:
Cobalt hasn’t been mined in the United States for 40 years, and the country produced zero tonnes of graphite in 2015. There is one lithium operation near the Tesla Gigafactory 1 site but it only produces 1,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year. That’s not nearly enough to fuel a battery boom of this size.
- South America: The countries in the “Lithium Triangle” host a whopping 75% of the world’s lithium resources: Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia.
- China: 65% of flake graphite is mined in China. With poor environmental and labor practices, China’s graphite industry has been under particular scrutiny – and some mines have even been shut down.
- Indonesia: Price swings of nickel can impact battery makers. In 2014, Indonesia banned exports of nickel, which caused the price to soar nearly 50%.
- DRC: 65% of all cobalt production comes from the DRC, a country that is extremely politically unstable with deeply-rooted corruption.
- North America: Yet, companies such as Tesla have stated that they want to source 100% of raw materials sustainably and ethically from North America. The problem? Only nickel sees significant supply come from the continent.
To meet its goal of a 100% North American raw materials supply chain, Tesla needs new resources to be discovered and extracted from the U.S., Canada, or Mexico.
RAW MATERIAL DEMAND
While all sorts of supply questions exist for these energy metals, the demand situation is much more straightforward.
Consumers are demanding more batteries, and each battery is made up of raw materials like cobalt, graphite, and lithium.
Today, about 40% of cobalt is used to make rechargeable batteries. By 2019, it’s expected that 55% of total cobalt demand will go to the cause.
In fact, many analysts see an upcoming bull market in cobalt.
“In many ways, the cobalt industry has the most fragile supply structure of all battery raw materials.” – Andrew Miller, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence
- Battery demand is rising fast
- Production is being cut from the Congo
- A supply deficit is starting to emerge
There is 54kg of graphite in every battery anode of a Tesla Model S (85kWh).
Benchmark Mineral Intelligence forecasts that the battery anode market for graphite (natural and synthetic) will at least triple in size from 80,000 tonnes in 2015 to at least 250,000 tonnes by the end of 2020.
Goldman Sachs estimates that a Tesla Model S with a 70kWh battery uses 63 kilograms of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) – more than the amount of lithium in 10,000 cell phones.
Further, for every 1% increase in battery electric vehicle (BEV) market penetration, there is an increase in lithium demand by around 70,000 tonnes LCE/year.
Lithium prices have recently spiked, but they may begin sliding in 2019 if more supply comes online.