Metals shortages pose little risk to future battery production, MIT finds
Metals shortages pose little risk to future battery production, MIT finds
An open pit lithium mine (Credit: UNC Chapel Hill)

Metals shortages pose little risk to future battery production, MIT finds

MIT-led study finds that while short-term supply chain bottlenecks could limit battery production in future, there is no shortage of metals with which to manufacture them. 

The battery industry can relax. In the near future, shortages of critical metals will place “absolutely no limitations” on battery manufacturing, according to a report published this week by US academics.

Since batteries are what will keep the IoT ticking along, this will come as a big relief to many in the industry.

But, the researchers warn, “without proper planning”, there could still be short-term bottlenecks in the supplies of some metals, particularly lithium and cobalt, that could cause temporary slowdowns in production.

The study was conducted by Professor Elsa Olivetti and doctoral student Xinkai Fu at MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Gerbrand Ceder at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB); and Gabrielle Gaustad at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Their report appeared this week in the journal Joule.

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Key ingredients

The researchers decided to focus their research on the five most essential ingredients needed to produce today’s lithium-ion batteries: lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel and carbon, in the form of graphite. Other key ingredients, they say, are so abundant that they are not considered to be a limiting factor.

Among those five key materials, it quickly became clear that nickel and manganese are used so widely in other industries that battery production – even if it significantly increases – doesn’t constitute “a significant slice of the pie”, according to Olivetti.

Instead, it’s supply chains of lithium and cobalt that are most likely to be impacted by shortages. Since Lithium can either be mined or processed from brines, with the latter process easy to ramp up quickly, in as little as six to eight months, serious disruption to battery production is unlikely. Cobalt production, however, is more complicated, since its major source is the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has a history of violent conflict and corruption.

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New mines ahead

But the main potential cause of delays in obtaining new supplies of the mineral comes from not its inherent geographic distribution, but from actual extraction. “The delay is in the ability to open new mines,” said Olivetti. “With any of these things, the material is out there, but the question is at what price.”

To guard against possible disruptions in the cobalt supply, she added, researchers “are trying to move to cathode materials [for lithium-ion batteries] that are less cobalt-dependent.”

Still, the good news is that, over the next 15 years, while potential bottlenecks exist, there are no serious obstacles to meeting rising demand. And that matters to the IoT, as batteries are what keep many connected sensors, devices and machines ‘alive’ – particularly electric vehicles.

On 28 & 29 November 2017, we will be holding our Battery and Energy Storage Show event at The Slate at Warwick University Campus, UK, featuring a wide range of specialist speakers from both the private and public sectors.