Concerns About Electric Vehicle Batteries are Being Addressed
Some writers have sought to cast doubt on the ability of electric vehicles (EVs) to replace gasoline-powered vehicles based on concerns about the supply of the mineral cobalt contained within their batteries.
These concerns are not well-founded for numerous reasons. EV manufacturers can and will adapt to the supply challenges presented by cobalt supply.
Many EVs already use batteries that do not rely on cobalt.
Many EVs, including the Nissan Leaf, use batteries that do not rely on cobalt. Cobalt is not a requirement for EV batteries.
Next generation batteries may not use cobalt
Companies are investing enormous resources in the development of next generation batteries. Many promising new technologies are being developed, including lithium metal, lithium-sulfur, and zinc air. While it is still uncertain which of these technologies will be first to market, it is likely that one or more of these technologies which do not use cobalt will arrive on the market in the next decade.
Cobalt concentrations of batteries are declining.
For those EVs which do use cobalt, their cobalt usage is likely to decline by about 70%. Presently, Tesla and Bolt batteries contain an equal mix of nickel, manganese, and cobalt. The new generation of batteries (expected to reach market within a year) will contain eight parts nickel (an abundant material) for each part of manganese and cobalt.
Cobalt reserves are substantial
Cobalt was historically not a mineral in great demand, and was produced mainly as a byproduct of other mining. It is likely that entirely new sources of cobalt will be developed as mining companies zero in on cobalt sources.
Cobalt recycling is picking up
Recycling of the cobalt in EV batteries is expanding rapidly, and is likely to grow to serve 10% of cobalt demand by 2025, increasing further as additional EV batteries are retired.
Companies are beginning to address human rights issues in Congo
The human rights issues involving cobalt mining are significant, but companies are beginning to address them. Much of the blame is placed on unscrupulous middlemen who source cobalt directly from small family enterprises which use children to mine cobalt.
Amnesty International has found that Tesla and LG Chem (supplier of Chevy Bolt batteries) have both taken steps to disclose and monitor the source of cobalt used in their batteries. A coalition of car makers have agreed to source cobalt ethically. Continued focus on improving the human rights and labor practices involved in cobalt mining is necessary.
EV batteries are being reused and recycled
Current EV batteries are forecast to last for 500,000 miles or more. When they degrade enough to be unsuitable for cars, they are being re-used for electricity storage. After that, their raw materials are being recycled.
Cobalt supply issues are a challenge for electrification of the vehicle fleet, but not an overwhelming one. New sources of production, battery recycling, improved focus on human rights issues in Africa, and changing battery technologies will allow EVs to continue supplanting gasoline vehicles. We shouldn’t stop the EV revolution because of electric vehicle batteries.