The era of the electric vehicle has arrived. GM, the world’s largest automaker, stated earlier this year that it plans to stop selling gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2035. Audi, a German automaker, intends to discontinue making such vehicles by the year 2033. Similar road maps have been released by several other automotive companies. Suddenly, major automakers’ hesitancy in electrifying their fleets has turned into a hasty retreat.
Researchers’ first task is to limit the number of metals that must be mined for electric vehicle batteries. According to data from Argonne National Laboratory, a single automotive lithium-ion battery pack (of the kind known as NMC532) might contain roughly 8 kilograms of lithium, 20 kg of manganese, 14 kg of cobalt and 35 kg of nickel based on the battery kind and model of vehicle.
According to analysts, lithium-ion batteries are unlikely to be phased out anytime soon: their cost has dropped so substantially that they are expected to remain the leading technology for the near future. Even if their performance has improved, they are currently 30 times cheaper compared to when they initially hit the market as compact, portable batteries in the initial 1990s. According to BNEF, the price of the lithium-ion Electric Vehicle battery pack will decrease below $100 for every kilowatt-hour by the year 2023, or around 20% less than it is now (see ‘Battery costs plummet’). As a result, by the mid-2020s, electric automobiles, which are presently more costly than conventional cars, should have reached price parity. (Electric cars are currently cheaper than gasoline cars over their lifetimes, according to some estimates, because they are less costly to power and maintain.)
Various laboratories have been exploring cobalt-free or low-cobalt cathodes to address the raw material concerns. However, even if more than 50% of the lithium ions are released during charging, cathode elements must be carefully chosen such that their crystal formations do not break up. According to Arumugam Manthiram, a materials scientist of the University of Texas in Austin, removing cobalt completely diminishes a battery’s energy density because it changes the cathode’s crystal structure and its ability to bind lithium firmly.
Nickel isn’t as pricey as cobalt, but it’s still not cheap. It’s also something that researchers wish to get rid of. “We’ve handled the cobalt issue, but because we’re growing so quickly, we’re going directly for a nickel challenge,” said Gerbrand Ceder, who works at Berkeley as a materials scientist, California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. However, removing nickel and cobalt from cathode materials will necessitate a move to completely new crystal structures.
Researchers will encounter an unanticipated effect if batteries are manufactured without cobalt. Because other minerals, particularly lithium, are now cheaper to mine compared to recycle, metal is the major factor that renders recycling batteries cost-effective.