Humanity cannot sustain the green path it is traversing without ground-breaking advances in our Materials Science. A key value proposition for electric vehicles (EVs) is their ultra-low carbon footprint on the roads. Combustion engine vehicles from the last industrial revolution produce tailpipe emissions. But battery-powered EVs have emission challenges of their own: production of the batteries themselves is a highly carbon-intensive process.
Solar-generated electricity is not part of the energy mix in the design of batteries for EVs. To date, cobalt and lithium are the only two materials we have adequately decoded to manufacture rechargeable batteries in scaled-up factory settings. Silver remains indispensable. Once our green technology Materials Science advance enough to make better batteries, or long-range power transmission lines a reality, silver will be integral to the superconductors that will make such technologies function.
Apart from jewellery, silver is already used in jet engines, pharmaceuticals, solar panels, desalination plants, and telecommunications. But until then, what we have during the twin transitions of decarbonisation and digitalization is lithium and cobalt. In some countries, a typical 100-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, is built in factories that run on a coal-powered grid. The process is energy and carbon-intensive. The method releases 13,500 kilograms of CO2 emissions.
This is equivalent to the amount of carbon pollution released into the atmosphere by a typical combustion-powered automobile travelling a distance of 33,000 miles. Even in some developed economies, the grid is partially powered by a mix of 40 per cent natural gas, and 19 per cent coal. The production of lithium and its refinement into metal, and the subsequent incorporation of lithium into rechargeable batteries are among the most energy-intensive engineering solutions humanity has ever devised.
The bulk of lithium comes from evaporation ponds in Chile and Argentina. However, the future of lithium processing will mirror that of iron ore. The raw material supply lines are stable, but the refining and value-added will happen where power is cheap. Lithium occupies the third spot in the periodic table. This means that it has three electrons. Two in an inner stable atomic shell, leaving just one free electron in an outer shell. It is this lone electron that allows the flow of electricity within lithium metal.
One electron is very limited capability. For this reason, electric vehicles need about 140 pounds of lithium to function – and it’s why making a lithium battery without cobalt during the green transition is impractical. Among other things, cobalt keeps batteries, from catching fire. Figuring out the materials chemistry of a battery that does not need so much Cobalt is where the “Smart Money” is converging. Ninety-eight per cent of global cobalt production is a by-product of nickel and copper output. It is important to note that not all nickel and copper mines generate cobalt.
Today, we can find few unique places on earth like Bou Azzer in Morocco, that are mono-product cobalt mines. Tenke Fungurume is the largest producer of copper and cobalt. Metalkol is a copper and cobalt facility near the Musonoi River. Etoile produces cobalt oxides and sulphates, and copper. Luiswishi is an open-pit copper and cobalt mine. Cuba’s Moa Bay produces high-grade cobalt and Class I nickel. Norilsk Nickel in Siberia is among the world’s top five producers of cobalt.
As of February 2023, EU sanctions on Russia had yet to affect cobalt. However, an April 2022 round of sanctions from the Americans hit Russian cobalt with a 45 per cent tax that expires on January 1, 2024. Up until the end of 2022, cobalt remains the only sufficiently energy-dense material that displays any possibility to use in rechargeable batteries. Bulky iPhones use about half an ounce each. A typical EV uses about 50 pounds. To keep pace with green aspirations, annual cobalt metal demand between 2022 and 2025 needs to double to 220,000 tons. Half of the world’s commercially usable cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Much of that production is in the hands of artisanal miners, who evade guards after climbing over barbed wire fences, to unearth slabs of grey rock, streaked with black, and punctuated with what looks like blobs of bright-turquoise mould. The slabs are then sold to middle-men for pennies.
The cobalt in the DRC is in remote parts of its southern jungles. One possible gateway would be to approach the mines from South Africa along a long corridor through the highland spine of southern Africa. The diamond miner Cecil Rhodes did precisely this. When South Africa became independent in 1915, Johannesburg managed the entire zone and the attendant rail line along the corridor that even crossed into purportedly independent nations like Zimbabwe and Zambia.
The route remained open until apartheid ended in the early 1990s. Rhodes and his British South Africa Company founded the southern African territory of Rhodesia (now renamed Zimbabwe and Zambia), which the company named after him in 1895. Lithium-ion batteries used to power EVs account for about 40 to 60 per cent production emissions. Making lithium-ion batteries generates as much emissions as producing all the other materials that go into making EVs. The method is insufficient to meet the moment.