US looks to increase metals imports for EV batteries

The United States will likely need to massively increase its reliance on imports of foreign metals if it is to meet the Biden administration’s goal of moving the country to mainly electric vehicles.  

U.S. production of the key metals needed to make EV batteries is already only a small percentage of national demand, so increasing sales of electric vehicles to 50 percent of all new car sales by 2030 will require replacing one set of trading relationships — ones built on oil — for another.  

Such a shift could see new nations — like Indonesia, Congo, Chile, Australia, Argentina and the Philippines — rise to achieve OPEC-like controlling positions over the global energy market. 

Global battery demand could surge fifteenfold by 2030, with 55 percent of that demand going to commercial car batteries, 30 percent going to stationary batteries and much of the rest going to heavy duty transport, according to a study earlier this month from Rystad Energy. 

The Biden administration says it is aware of the risks posed by depending on other countries for the nation’s energy needs — not least because China currently controls most processing and refining. Over the past few months, the White House has announced billions of dollars in investment to source and process more rare earth metals domestically.  

“We’re going to need a significant increase in battery production to supercharge America’s clean energy future, which means we urgently need to build up our capacity to research, develop, manufacture, and market batteries right here at home,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a February statement. 

Granholm was announcing the results of an Energy Department review of battery supply chains that largely focused on creating manufacturing facilities to make American batteries and supply chains to feed them. 

But any upgrade to U.S. processing is going to have to consider that most of the raw resources are elsewhere.  

Most electric vehicle batteries require four principal minerals: Lithium makes up 10 percent of the battery, cobalt 18 percent, manganese 25 percent and nickel accounts for 45 percent, according to the scientific journal Nature. The U.S. would need to acquire the vast majority of each from outside its borders. 

Most of the world’s lithium supply — 74 percent — already goes to batteries, and Australia is by far the dominant world producer, turning out 55 percent of  the global supply, virtually all of it from two clusters of mines in Western Australia. After that, major producers’ market share falls off steeply: next comes Chile at 26 percent, China at 14 percent and Argentina at 6 percent. Brazil, Zimbabwe and Portugal each control less than 2 percent. 

But with lithium demand projected to hit 117.4 kilotons by 2024, according to Global Data, and possibly outstripping supply by 2 million by 2030, according to Rystad, a lot more is going to be needed. 

The lion’s share of the unused reserves — 41 percent — lies in the highland salt flats of Chile, which with Argentina and Bolivia form the so-called lithium triangle. Australia holds 26 percent of the reserves, followed by China, the U.S. and Zimbabwe. 

The relatively small amount of lithium in a typical battery belies its critical importance as a source of the ions that shuttle current across the battery. Like the other key materials, lithium is very reactive — a useful quality for the anode in EV batteries — which means it doesn’t occur stably in nature. But it dissolves well and is commonly obtained from brines, or the salt flats that the brines evaporate into. 

Cobalt, one of the three metal oxides commonly placed as crystals in the cathode, which receives electrons in a battery, is found as a component of several crystals that form through volcanic activity in the earth’s crust.  

In 2021, U.S. production was only about 11 percent of its domestic demand, while the largest amounts came from Norway, Canada, Japan and Finland, and 40 percent came from other sources. 

The vast majority of global supply and reserves are in Central Africa’s Copperbelt region.  

Far and away, the largest producer is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with 70 percent of global supply. That’s followed — very far behind — by Russia, Australia, the Philippines, Canada, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar, Cuba, Morocco, Indonesia and the U.S. itself. 

None of the demand for these elements is set in stone, but nor is it likely to shift anytime soon. Scientists have been experimenting for a decade with sodium batteries, which would replace both lithium and cobalt. The batteries have an unfortunate tendency to explode after prolonged use, though a team at the University of Texas announced in December that they had solved that problem. 

In part because of human rights concerns — particularly around the presence of child labor in Congolese mining — some battery companies like Tesla have announced that they will move off cobalt.  

But even with those plans, cobalt production in 2030 is expected to hit levels two to three times higher than what the world produced in 2021, according to a study in American Chemical Society. 

That will draw more heavily on global reserves — most of which, like production, are in Congo, which has 46 percent, followed a good ways back by Australia, Indonesia, Cuba, Philippines, Russia, Canada, Madagascar, China and the U.S.  

Two other metals, manganese and nickel, are less well-known but equally critical elements of the electron-receiving cathodes of EV batteries. 

Manganese makes up about a quarter of the typical battery by weight, and the United States has no significant supplies or production, with most of its existing capabilities going to the manufacture of steel. 

Most American imports come from Gabon, Australia, Norway and South Africa, in that order. South Africa and Australia may be best placed to meet rising manganese demand.  

Finally — and largest in weight, if not necessarily in importance — is nickel, which makes up the largest part, 45 percent, of the typical battery. The amount of nickel in a battery is directly proportional to how much energy it can store, and therefore determines an EV’s range, according to The Telegraph. 

The U.S. met about 9 percent of its domestic demand in 2021, virtually all of it from the Eagle Mine in Big Bay, Mich., near Lake Superior. The U.S. met the bulk of its remaining demand with imports from Canada, which supplied 43 percent, followed by Norway, Finland and Australia. 

The remaining 30 percent came from elsewhere — which makes sense, as none of the world’s biggest suppliers currently made that list. In terms of global production, Indonesia is far and away the world’s largest producer, followed by the Philippines, Russia, New Caledonia, Australia, Canada, China, Brazil and the United States. 

“We have a huge gap between the reserves we have and what we actually need,” said Dave Banks of the Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions. 

By “we,” Banks meant the U.S. and its treaty allies — which include Australia and its ample lithium deposits. 

Banks noted that while China has solved that problem by locking down foreign supply chains, the U.S. can potentially do it through innovation that seeks to meet our manufacturing goals with the minerals present in the United States, “rather than looking for minerals that we don’t have.”

Tags Jennifer Granholm

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