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Hype Meets Reality as Electric Car Dreams Run Into Metal Crunch

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The African nation produces more than 60 percent of the world’s cobalt, a fifth of which is drawn out by artisanal miners who work with their hands — some of whom are children.

Well, this could be a plus... Send pictures of the little kid with the car and a flyer that says "Purchase of this battery sent Mahamadou to school for a semester"...

If history is a guide, the cobalt mania won’t last. In the early 2000s, palladium, used in catalytic converters that remove pollution from vehicle exhaust, tripled in two years on supply concerns. Carmakers eventually found ways to use less of the metal, and demand slid by a third. Ford Motor Co. was forced to write off $1 billion when its stockpile of the metal fell in value.

I suspect the manufacturers will figure out how to use way less Cobalt....

Recycling technologies to extract minerals from dead batteries, meanwhile, could add 25,000 tons of supply by 2025, CRU projections show

and recycling will become a big deal

NMC batteries (nickel - manganese - cobalt), by far the largest chemistry by shipping volume, has already been reformulating in the past few years to use significantly less cobalt. This is done by changing the proportions; by electron acceptor capacity, the first NMC batteries used to use about as much of every element (1:1:1 Ni:Mn:Co), whereas the newest cells (e.g. the ones in the Model 3) use more like 8:1:1, with 10-12:1:1 already being in production by e.g. TAES.

There are plenty of chemistries that are cobalt-less, although they typically have lower energy density, e.g. LiFePO4.

So yeah, industry is adapting.

I've been having a hard time understanding why LiFePO4 doesn't seem to be taking off for grid storage over other lithium-ion chemistries. Is it a matter of production scale or is there something I'm missing? The lack of cobalt is very attractive now but I expect the lack of nickel to also become significant. It needs slightly more lithium per KWh than the alternatives but not enough to be a huge factor.

From what I can find it should be intrinsically cheaper and should have very good calendar and cycle life, safety, and round-trip efficiency. The lower energy density shouldn't be a barrier for grid storage.

I also wonder if anything will come of Li5FeO4. A new paper was released on it recently.

As far as I understand this is just 100% scale of production. The main market for batteries right now is not grid storage but rather high density applications like EVs and portable electronics, so the market has converged around high density, high voltage chemistries.

If grid storage were the dominant demand factor, I'm sure something like LiFePO4 would be more attractive. Then again, it's got other issues: there is MUCH cheaper, but heavier alternatives in anti-sulfation treated lead acid, NiMH and things like good old vanadium batteries. When mass isn't an impediment, those technologies work great. LiFePO4 will be much more expensive simply because cells have to be hermetically sealed and thus have certain size restrictions per cell to be practical. This means lots of individual cells, lots of assembly costs, etc. The ingredients may be plentiful and the production process may be relatively simple, but it'll still lose when your alternative is literally throwing a 12-ton sheet of lead/zinc into sulfuric acid and calling it a day.

Because of this, I really expect redox fuel cells to eventually win out. It has the ultimate scaleability of flooded lead acid, and at the same time the high energy and potential high power density of lithium chemistries. That being said, currently vanadium flow batteries - the dominant tech - is pretty expensive and seems to have significant technological barriers before widespread adoption can occur.

Thanks, insightful as always.

There are a lot of trade-offs between LiFePO4 and the other storage technologies you mentioned beyond weight or mass. In particular none of them can come close to 95+% round-trip efficiency, which is high even among lithium-ion chemistries. From what I can find lead-acid is about 80%, NiMH 70-80%, and Vanadium redox around 70%. LiFePO4's comparatively flat discharge curve and high cycle life allows it to be used at larger DoDs than the others, especially lead-acid.

I probably need to see a cost breakdown but my impression of flow batteries has been that they need fairly high energy to power ratios to start winning out in cost over long periods of time, assuming that it's compared to traditional battery technologies with high cycle and calendar life. For this reason and the others I'd expect them to be more useful for storage spanning many hours, with traditional batteries filling in for the first few hours and getting comparatively more cycles. But many hour storage probably won't make sense economically for a while so that could be holding back production development in the mean time.

So, the energetic efficiency is a very nuanced topic, really. You can get really efficient with NiMH for instance, IF you keep it between 0.9-1.1V and charge/discharge it slowly and use voltage cutoff. Lead acid can even be really good, especially flooded, with some relatively modern innovations. 95% maybe not, but I've seen papers with >90% round-trip efficiencies in particular scenarios, something that you can tailor a grid-tied battery to if you want.

The main advantage of in particular lead acid in this comparison is cycle life at moderate discharge. Lithium ion is really good at lots of moderate discharges; you can get 10k cycles out of NCA if you're prudent. Lead acid, if you charge it right, use anti-sulfation and anti-dendrite charging/discharging cycles, can do 100k cycles at moderate discharges, and still beats li-ion when deep cycling. They're also pretty much 100% recyclable, making for a really interesting prospect for these super long-term projects.

Flow batteries are fundamentally some kind of bulk energy-carrying material (very cheap in the long run) and the fuel cell. The fuel cell will have cost scaling pretty much linearly with power, so you want continuous power to be as low as possible to reduce overall cost per kWh. Considering that the vast majority of grid-scale battery capacity in the future will have to be seasonal storage, vanadium redox flow cells fit that bill pretty well. You'll still need high-drain type batteries for short-term balancing. In vehicles, considering batteries are already a minor cost, the cost of the fuel cell will not necessarily be prohibitive in the long run, even though it currently certainly is.

Comment deleted5 months ago

I'm suggesting that it's possible to find the silver lining in any cloud.

-1 points · 5 months ago

I've been saying for years, China owns this market and trying to force everyone into it will just make China that much more powerful.

Cobalt, EVs or Batteries?


well, they need to hunt for Cobalt world wide...

Also, China runs cars anyways. Global supply chain, global production. Try getting a fusebox that isn't made in china

BTW, lots of manufacturing has already moved out of the Perl River delta.

Some has gone West but lots are going to Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia

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