New battery technologies and recycling won’t save you from cobalt shortage

The answer may lie in decreasing cobalt dependency on batteries.
Can Emir
Battery levelsMF3d/iStock

As we lean more on electrification to negate the effects of climate change we use more cobalt, a critical battery material, to a degree that there now is an increased potential supply risk of the ferromagnetic metal.

According to estimates of researchers based on mining and projected demand data, cobalt supply won’t be able to keep up with demand by 2030, even if we recycle the used cobalt.

Cobalt is one of the most important components of lithium-ion batteries as it maximizes the energy density and extends battery life. But just like lithium, cobalt production has been stretched to its limits as any nation that produces electronics is a buyer of cobalt. While the semiconductor chip shortage softened the need for cobalt, the cobalt shortage risk continues.

A single lithium-ion EV battery pack contains more than 30 pounds of cobalt and larger vehicles, such as electric buses and shipping trucks, use much more cobalt. Although batteries are likely to be used for many years, and have the potential to be used again as stationary energy storage after being used in an EV, the transition to green and a growing EV industry suggests that the needed volume of cobalt is much higher than what can actually be provided as the metal is a finite resource. While the most cobalt consuming sector is deemed to be EVs, the metal is also in consumer devices, like in most household appliances.

E-waste volume increases

When said household appliances are broken down we usually throw them away instead of recycling them. From 2014 to 2019, e-waste volumes grew by 21 percent — but in 2019, only 17.4 percent of that waste was recycled, according to the UN University. Part of the reason behind that low number is that e-waste recycling is a difficult thing to do. Small electronics like phones and smartwatches that require tiny circuit boards and batteries are gunked up with adhesives, meaning mixed metals can’t be separated out and reused.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says, "Recycling would not eliminate the need for continued investment in new supply to meet climate goals, but we estimate that, by 2040, recycled quantities of copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt from spent batteries could reduce combined primary supply requirements for these minerals by around 10 percent." 

Cobalt recycling is an important step on the road to a clean, sustainable energy future, as well as a circular economic model that can free the energy industry from international competition, shortages, and price fluctuations. 

Therefore, using cobalt could potentially make our renewable energy future, just like fossil fuels, dependent on a finite source of energy.

Fortunately, there are successful attempts to produce cobalt-free batteries, as a Chinese firm called SVTOL and Panasonic from Japan, making energy-dense batteries for Tesla.

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