Makers of electric vehicle batteries will have to keep using scarce, expensive cobalt in their products for the foreseeable future despite a push towards higher nickel compositions, materials technology company Umicore said on Monday.
Manufacturers have been trying to increase the proportion of nickel used in electric vehicle batteries to boost energy density, while reducing cobalt use to cut costs.
While many electric car batteries contain equal proportions of nickel, cobalt and manganese, battery makers including South Korea’s SK Innovation and LG Chem have recently announced plans to produce NCM 811 batteries – which contain 80 percent nickel, 10 percent cobalt and 10 percent manganese – this year.
Umicore Chief Executive Marc Grynberg told a briefing that while the technology was evolving towards higher nickel loadings, it was not possible to design cobalt out of batteries.
“If you increase the nickel proportion, you reduce the stability of the battery and so it has an impact on cycle life, the ability to charge it fast,” he said.
“Cobalt is the element that makes up for the lack of stability of nickel. There isn’t a better element than nickel to increase energy density, and there isn’t a better element than cobalt to make the stuff stable. So (while) you hear about designing out cobalt, this is not going to happen in the next three decades. It simply doesn’t work.”
Belgium’s Umicore, a leading supplier of materials for electric vehicle batteries, including cobalt, said last week that it had raised 892 million euros ($1.1 billion) in an equity placement to help fund investments in its fast-expanding rechargeable battery materials business.
Cobalt prices COB-CATH-LON have more than tripled in the last two years after projections of buoyant demand growth for electric cars led to increased consumption of metals used in their batteries, a mix that also typically includes lithium.
More than half of annual mined supply of cobalt is sourced from Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been riven by two decades of conflict.
In the near term, enough cobalt is being produced to meet demand from the electric vehicle industry, Grynberg said, with Umicore sourcing Congolese metal via a responsible supply agreement audited by PwC.
In the longer term, recycled supply will be needed, he said. The company expects to ramp up recycling of spent electric vehicle batteries to “significant” levels in the next seven to nine years, when more feedstock returns to the market.
“In 10 years’ time it will still be relatively modest, but in 20 years’ time it will be a significant proportion of our (usage),” he said.
“If you look at a more mature market, like the market for catalysts that contain platinum group metals, about half of our supply is coming from recycling.”