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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

Rare metals: the battery conundrum


8 min read

Aerial shot over opencast mining operations Photo: Pexels
The mining of cobalt is largely constrained to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is complicated by unethical and unsafe labour practices

Photo: Pexels

Decarbonising both road transport and electricity generation depends on producing an ever-increasing number of batteries. The best of these is currently the lithium-ion battery which contains large quantities of lithium and cobalt, whose supply is struggling to keep pace with growing demand. Charlie Bush reports on the situation and potential solutions to this issue.

Although electric vehicles (EVs) have 90% fewer moving parts than cars with internal combustion engines, on average they are around 340 kg heavier, according to International Energy Agency (IEA) data. This is due to the need for both a battery and one or more motors. These necessary components mean that EVs contain up to six times as many minerals as petrol equivalents, typically including around 9 kg of lithium and 13 kg of rare cobalt. But, the explosion in EV sales has led to a supply bottleneck and spiralling prices as the production of these rare metals struggles to align with demand.


In recent years, the long-term cost of supplying grid electricity from lithium-ion batteries has also plummeted, vastly improving their appeal as a cost-competitive alternative to natural gas-fired power plants. The World Energy Council says that lithium-ion batteries represent over 90% of the world’s grid battery storage systems and key energy markets are looking to expand their battery storage capacity.


Besides EVs and grid-scale storage, lithium-ion batteries also supply power to virtually all electronic devices, including mobile phones, laptops and power tools. Lithium-ion batteries most commonly use cobalt as electrodes because this design has one of the highest energy densities of any battery technology today, resulting in a far longer battery life. They can be recharged hundreds of times, charge faster and avoid issues such as periodic discharge maintenance and memory issues.


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