Nickel prices are on the rise after sanctions on Russia. Here's what it means for EVs

Nickel is a key component in lithium-ion battery cells used in EVs.
Derya Ozdemir
Massive sulfide nickel ore rock.Photon-Photos/iStock

Nickel prices are skyrocketing.

That's partly due to Russia, a major supplier of the metal, facing severe sanctions as a result of its invasion of Ukraine. The unusual circumstances have led nickel's value to practically quadrupling in a single day.

On March 7th, Monday, nickel traded on the London Metal Exchange with a 90 percent increase that reached $55,000 a metric ton before closing at $48,078, according to the Wall Street Journal. The next day was just as chaotic, with nickel reaching a shocking high of $100,000. The London Metal Exchange was forced to cancel the trading of nickel on Tuesday morning in an extraordinary move after three-month contract prices more than quadrupled.

The unprecedented increase has caused damage to the global nickel market and related upstream and downstream industries. 

This is crucial as nickel is a key component in lithium-ion battery cells used in the majority of electric vehicles currently planned for the United States market, and also around the world. The abrupt price surge has led to analysts and investors voicing concerns about many electric vehicle makers' ambitious programs, and whether they can be met in this economy. But there may be no need to panic just yet.

How did the sanctions affect nickel production?

The unusual fluctuations are caused in part by Western sanctions against Russia, including the exclusion of Russian banks from SWIFT. Russia's total nickel ore output amounts to 11 percent of global supply, with pure nickel accounting for 20 percent. "The impact to the global supply chain is foreseeable," Wang Yanqing, an industry analyst, told the Global Times.

However, nickel was not inexpensive even before Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Western sanctions. According to CNBC, experts were already concerned about a possible scarcity as global manufacturers speed up the production of EVs.

Putting the nickel in electric vehicles

Electric vehicles are in a vulnerable position as high-nickel batteries provide considerable advantages to EVs. Nickel is critical to high-energy-density battery cells found in some electric vehicles.

Automakers who haven’t secured a supply of nickel at prices before the Russian invasion will be especially hard hit, as they can either absorb the cost rise and diminish their profit margins, or pass it on to consumers, which would be unfavorable for both sides. 

If the price of nickel continues to rise at the same rate, this would likely mean that the cost of electric vehicles will go up. We may have already started seeing the ripple effects of this, since Tesla has revised its pricing for the Model 3 and Model Y, which increase the prices of the long-range models by $1,000, according to Electrek. However, it should also be noted that the EV maker has increased prices significantly in 2021 due to supply chain restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While it's unclear whether the nickel pricing and Tesla's price rise are related, Electrek pointed out that Tesla has only raised the price of vehicles with nickel batteries.

But not all EVs will be affected

There is an alternate type of battery out there that is already in use for lower-cost EVs. However, lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, which use iron phosphate in their cathodes instead of nickel or cobalt, are not without their drawbacks. Because LFP battery packs have a lower energy density than lithium-ion battery packs, they are heavier per mile of range, restricting performance and compromising vehicle handling.

LFP batteries gained traction in the United States last fall when Tesla began using them in its entry-level "standard range" models. Now, with nickel prices soaring, global automakers may have to follow Tesla's lead and opt for lithium iron phosphate batteries instead. 

Meanwhile, according to Bloomberg, commodity analysts predict that nickel will trade below $20,000 a ton after the first quarter of this year and will not return to those levels until at least 2025. As of this writing, the nickel price is 42,995 per ton, and it’s indeed unlikely for prices to linger near current levels for more than a few weeks, as nickel is not a scarce material.

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