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Battery metals mining, recycling both critical to energy transition: panel


Complete transition to EVs will require 10 TWh of battery production

A full global transition away from fossil fuels will require 350 TWh

  • Author
  • Justine Coyne
  • Editor
  • Valarie Jackson
  • Commodity
  • Electric Power Metals
  • Tags
  • Lithium Battery Metals Nickel
  • Topic
  • Battery Metals Energy Transition Environment and Sustainability

With the sheer volume of battery terawatt-hours required to transition the world away from fossil fuels, it is going to require both increased mining and advances in battery recycling to meet demand, a panel of battery industry researchers and executives said March 29.

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A complete transition to electric transportation will require on the order of 10 TWh of battery production in the next decade, according to Vineet Mehta, director of battery technology and system architecture at Tesla. Taken a step further, to think about getting the entire planet off of fossil fuel consumption, including primary energy consumption, will put total demand close to 350 TWh, Mehta said while moderating a panel at Cambridge EnerTech's International Battery Seminar and Exhibit.

At the rate of 15 years in service for a battery, this would require the yearly rate of battery production to be about 15 TWh/year, he noted.

Jeff Dahn, a professor at Dalhousie University, said that from a primary production standpoint, all there is to work with to build better batteries is the periodic table and the scale of demand for batteries in the coming years and decades is "mind-boggling" from a natural resource demand perspective.

Part of the key to achieving a more sustainable future is working now to create cells that can last longer, as they would not have to be recycled as often and would eventually require less battery production on a yearly basis, he said.

Jeff Spangenberger, director of the ReCell Center at Argonne National Laboratory, said that building out this new battery supply chain requires looking at the big picture and designing for sustainability from the start given the demand for resources.

ReCell and the Department of Energy are working to see if they can take away some of the obstacles in direct cathode recycling, with a focus on developing cost-effective processing technologies to extract as much value as possible from current and future battery chemistries.

JB Straubel, the CEO of battery materials company Redwood Materials, said he sees the future battery supply chain ultimately as a closed loop where recycling is key, but it is still going to require the blending of virgin raw materials to meet demand.

Redwood announced in February a partnership with Ford and Volvo to recycle electric vehicle batteries.

"We can't recycle our way, unfortunately, to 350 [TWh] of installed battery storage on the planet; there just aren't that many of these metals already in the economy that we could recycle to achieve that," Straubel said. "It's going to be a long process of basically overlapping new material mining mixed with ever-growing recycled material content."

Challenges with supply chains, metals prices

It is going to take a lot of effort to scale up the battery supply chain, particularly from a North American perspective, as with today's cathode supply chain for EVs, almost all refining and material manufacturing is centered in Asia, Straubel noted.

"The status quo that we have today is not really scalable to where we need to go, not even close I'd say," he said.

Additionally, volatility in metals pricing, particularly nickel and lithium, creates challenges to manufacturers as they are looking to reduce the cost of EVs for consumers.

"You can't predict what the price of nickel will be within 100% these days, so that's definitely a headwind," Straube said.

Nickel, which registered a global deficit in 2021, started to experience a price surge after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. This spiraled into a 250% gain within three days on the London Metal Exchange to reach more than $100,000/mt before the LME intervened March 8 to stop trading, reopening days later in a market subject to price limits. The rapid price spike was attributed to investor speculation.

Lithium prices, meanwhile, have seen a steady rise since early 2021 on the back of rapidly increasing demand from the EV batteries sector.

Platts assessed lithium carbonate at $74,000/mt March 29, up $1,000 on the day and $2,000 week on week, while lithium hydroxide surged $4,000 on the day and $4,500 week on week to $78,000/mt, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights data.