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Cathode makers seek alternatives to cobalt, nickel

29 Jan 2018 16:42 GMT
Cathode makers seek alternatives to cobalt, nickel

Frankfurt, 29 January (Argus) — Concerns over rising prices and falling supply are putting pressure on battery cathode manufacturers to substitute their cobalt and nickel content, delegates heard today at the Advanced Automotive Battery Conference in Mainz, Germany.

"Cobalt availability is the biggest concern for us, as there is already a short-term supply shortage," cathode manufacturer BASF's senior vice-president, Hartmann Leube, said. "But nickel supply concerns us in the medium term, as only a quarter of ore can meet the standards required for processing into nickel sulphate for cathode production."

BASF expects to offset nickel supply concerns in the medium term, having formed a strategic relationship with Russia's Norilsk Nickel. But it will look to recycling initiatives after 2030 to secure additional supplies.

The company plans to increase the efficiency of the cobalt portions of its nickel-cobalt-manganese (NCM) cathodes in the near term. It will assess the viability of cutting the content to 10pc from 20pc before 2025. "The real holy grail would be to reduce cobalt," Leube said.

But this would involve higher costs after 2025, as the composition of the cathode material would shift to up to 80pc nickel, 10pc cobalt and 10pc manganese. Nickel prices could become too high, as BASF forecasts electric vehicles to account for up to half of nickel demand by 2025.

The firm aims to create "manganese-rich" cathodes in the longer term to reduce the quantity of nickel and cobalt in its NCM cathodes significantly. But this will require extensive costly research and development.

Delegates at the conference were uncertain that cobalt and nickel content will successfully be eliminated, with no clear timeframe from cathode manufacturers for the introduction of newer technologies. Cathode manufacturers will have to accept rising prices and supply bottlenecks for cobalt and nickel in the short term.

But US-based lithium producer FMC aims to expand research into silicon-bearing cathodes. And it has near-term plans to raise the nickel content in its cathodes, global commercial manager for new product development Marina Yakovleva said.

FMC expects transport to represent more than 90pc of global demand for lithium hydroxide by 2025. Hydroxide is favoured over lithium carbonate in batteries that use more nickel in the cathode, Yakovleva said.

BASF estimates that the global market for cathode materials nickel, cobalt and manganese will climb to 413,000 t/yr in 2025 from 219,000t last year. The overall share of energy generated from lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles will rise to 161 GWh/yr by 2020 from 50GWh in 2016, it said.