Materials in a transition

In thinking about the energy transition, it is easy to look at the status quo and compare it with a clean energy future of renewables, electric vehicles, bio-polymers and recycling then naturally opt for that future. After all, that future looks very attractive. What is often missing in this thought process is the required change in the global stock of materials to get there.

A good example of this comes from looking at the electric vehicle (EV). There are about 2 million globally or 0.2% of the passenger car fleet, but we might imagine a world in just a few decades where all the cars are electric. Some months ago I looked at what a highly accelerated EV transition might look like. It meets the 2020 goal of the Electric Vehicle Initiative of the Clean Energy Ministerial and is compatible with the Paris Agreement in terms of a 1.5-1.8°C goal (i.e. well-below 2°C with a stretch to 1.5°C).  The outcome has internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles largely departing the scene by 2060 and peak passenger vehicle stock of around 1.6 billion, compared with about 1 billion in 2016. This is a faster transition than many other outlooks, but it is a normative scenario designed to show the rate of change required for the Paris outcome to be realised.

EV Stock

Populating the world with 1.6 billion EVs requires building that many batteries and producing the materials that those batteries require. Although we can visualise a world of near 100% recycling of the battery components, the benefits of recycling don’t come until much later, as in a fast growth scenario the number being recycled after 15 years use is far lower than the number being produced. Even in 2060 in my rapid EV scenario, scrappage of EV vehicles still lags EV production in 2060.

The current Tesla Model S has a Nickel-Cobalt-Aluminium Lithium Ion battery. The cathode of the battery consists of about 35 kgs Nickel and 7 kgs Cobalt. While there are many different battery chemistries available, each offering different properties in terms of energy density, charging rate, hysteresis etc., all the chemistries depend on particular combinations of metals.


In a world in which the current Tesla chemistry dominated, the shift to a 100% EV fleet would require an on-the-road stock build of some 50 million tonnes of Nickel and 10 million tonnes of cobalt. This assumes an eventual global fleet of some 1.6 billion cars, as per my EV scenario. This stock is never recovered unless battery chemistry changes or the EV car population falls.

Current global production of Nickel is around 2 million tonnes per annum, with about 3% of that used for batteries. Nearly 70% of Nickel is used in the stainless-steel industry. Global cobalt production is around 110,000 tons per annum, with nearly two thirds of this coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The remainder comes from about ten other countries.

Given the above, such a stock build would require 25 years of global Nickel production and 91 years of Cobalt production – assuming 100% of production is directed to the new EV battery industry. An accelerated EV scenario requires this level of stock build in under 35 years, which either means a rapid escalation of production in these metals or many different battery chemistries, but probably both. Competition will also come from grid batteries, home batteries such as the Tesla Powerwall and many other new battery applications, although these may also use alternative chemistries.

The initial proposition of the Tesla chemistry dominating isn’t simple conjecture either. As I reported in my blog from COP22 in Marrakech, Professor Jeff Sachs from the Earth Institute at Columbia University made the strong claim that there would be no further production of internal combustion engine vehicles after 2030. Scaling up battery production so rapidly would likely depend on an existing chemistry; there simply wouldn’t be time to wait for new chemistries to be researched, developed and perfected for mass production.

A potential energy transition outcome is one of significantly increased production of certain materials, diversity in battery chemistry, a slower than desired uptake in EVs and perhaps a much smaller EV fleet than anticipated thanks to autonomous driving and vehicle sharing. Nevertheless, some simple calculations quickly show that the transition is likely to be a complex one, with an end result possibly far from the expected.