In Shell’s recently released Sky Scenario, around 1 billion electric passenger vehicles (EVs) could be on the roads as early as the 2040s. These 1 billion vehicles will each need a battery and while there are different battery chemistries available, it is likely that these batteries will need to include the vital element cobalt, a material that confers upon the battery good cycle ability and power output.

The new Tesla Model S has a Nickel-Cobalt-Aluminium Lithium Ion battery which contains just under 5 kg of cobalt, the lowest cobalt content of the various batteries that Tesla use.

While cobalt use per battery has fallen, with one manufacturer releasing information on the possible development of a cobalt free battery, some industry insiders believe that the Tesla Model 3 use of 10% cobalt in the battery cathode (8:1:1 Nickel:Cobalt:Manganese) is the minimum required for safety and battery longevity reasons.

If 8:1:1 were to be the dominant battery chemistry in the coming decades, an interesting dilemma emerges for automakers as they pursue electric vehicle development and rapid deployment. A look at global cobalt reserves, published recently in the BP Statistical Review of World Energy but drawing on data from the US and British Geological Survey, shows a current estimate of some 7 million tonnes, or 7 billion kilograms of cobalt. This is against current global production of 140 thousand tonnes, which has doubled over the last decade, giving a reserve to production ratio of 52 years.

The cumulative amount of cobalt (the stock) needed to be mined for passenger vehicle batteries will depend on the eventual number of cars in service (or batteries produced) and the amount of cobalt per battery. This stock is unrecoverable until cobalt is no longer used in batteries (or until cars transition again to some other propulsion mechanism), but it is reused repeatedly as older cars are scrapped, the cobalt recovered and recycled as new cars are built (the flow).

As the EV transition depicted in Sky gets going, the draw on cobalt increases and the stock builds. For example, by 2040 in Sky, 12.7 trillion vehicle kilometres are supplied by EVs, which could mean about 800 million to a billion vehicles on the basis of current usage patterns. At 4 to 5 kg each, that would require nearly 4 billion kilogrammes of cobalt, or more than half the global reserves. Before 2050 in Sky, the current global reserve of cobalt would be exceeded by EV deployment, without considering all the other demands for cobalt.

The above model assumes 100% recycle of cobalt as well, although this has little early impact in that recycle in 2040 will only come from production of EVs in the 2020s, which is still low compared to the potential 2040 stock. In any case, recycle is largely about annual flow, not stock. But an alternative model could emerge, which would see a much lower stock requirement for cobalt and therefore lessen the need to find alternatives, even with the same demand for passenger transport.

Autonomous vehicles offer the potential for vehicle sharing. If autonomous technology emerges rapidly, then the total number of cars in society can sharply decline under a vehicle sharing model, in that each car is used for a high percentage of the day, rather than parked awaiting the single use by its owner. While an individual car would likely have a much shorter life, say two to three years instead of fifteen, the stock requirement for materials such as cobalt would be much lower.

If by 2040 the number of EVs serving the above 12.7 trillion km demand is 100 million instead of 1 billion, then each vehicle would be driving 127,000 km per annum, leading perhaps to a two-year life after which there is either major refurbishment or even replacement. Annual production, or flow, of vehicles might remain largely unchanged, depending on the ratio of vehicles shared to vehicles owned and the life of a single vehicle under a high usage scenario. Whether the trend is towards refurbishment or replacement, the important materials such as cobalt are recycled and the total stock required by society is a fraction of the traditional ownership model. In a 100 million vehicle system, the required stock of cobalt could be as low as 500 million kilograms, just a fraction of current estimates of global reserves.

The above discussion introduces a new dimension into EV scenario thinking for auto manufacturers. The future might be dictated more by total vehicle stock considerations, in that manufacturers could encourage an alternative ownership model as the more cost-effective route forward to balance the demands on certain materials like cobalt. The alternative requires a continual search for different battery designs or seeking new deposits of hard-to-find minerals.


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