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Race to Control Battery Tech Underscores Need for Comprehensive Resource Policy 

Against the backdrop of the ongoing electric vehicle revolution, automakers are increasingly forced to deal with the realities of resource supply.  One of these realities was spelled out in clear terms by a Wall Street Journal report which stated:

“There’s a Global Race to Control Batteries – and China is Winning.  Chinese companies dominate the cobalt supply chain that begins at mines in Congo.”

Meanwhile, amidst growing demand for what is one of the key materials underpinning EV technology, the price for Cobalt has almost doubled over the past two years. Realizing the increasingly risk of a “bottleneck in the supply of materials used in the standard power source of the world’s growing fleet of electric vehicles,” automakers are stepping up their efforts to “not only boost the amount of energy batteries can hold using the same amount of raw materials, but also to switch to more abundant metals,” writes Henry Sanderson in a new piece for the Financial Times.

Sanderson — who had previously outlined some of the R&D efforts currently underway ranging from work on all-solid-state batteries to more conventional efforts including the shift towards batteries that use more Nickel and up to 75 percent less Cobalt — cites consultancy group Wood Mackenzie, which estimates that low-cobalt batteries “will make up the majority of the electric car market by 2025.”

However, even with a shift to low-Cobalt batteries factored into the equation, demand for Cobalt is still expected to more than double, as zero-Cobalt solid state battery tech is not considered feasible.

Meanwhile, the current efforts to diversify away from the metal may increase demand for another material – Vanadium. While generally more abundant that Cobalt, new challenges loom large here, too.  As we previously pointed out:

“It’s a story with a familiar theme for ARPN followers — the co-product challenge:

According to USGS, Vanadium is at least as plentiful as Nickel and Zinc – at least in terms of its availability in the earth’s crust. However, it rarely occurs in deposits that can be economically mined for the element alone. Between 2009 and 2013, some co-product vanadium production occurred domestically (though not from Bauxite mining for Aluminum), but it has since been suspended. 

As a result, the United States is currently 100% import dependent for its domestic Vanadium needs – in spite of the fact that ‘domestic resources and secondary recovery are adequate to supply a large portion of domestic needs.’”

With all the investments poured into research and development, the materials science revolution may well yield the next breakthrough at some point.  However, regardless of which technology will win the day – the race for pole position in the EV technology sector only underscores the need for a comprehensive policy framework that accounts for the ever-changing realities of mineral resource supply and demand over the patchwork approach we have so far witnessed.