Skip to main content

Critical Minerals in Battery Manufacturing

April 12, 2023 Battery graphic

This year’s Cleantech Summit was UNC’s largest event yet, with more than 200 speakers across multiple sectors and companies gathered from around the globe to share their knowledge and perspective about cleantech. One of which was Dr. Elisa Alonso of the United States Geological Survey.

Dr. Alonso received her Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute for Technology in 2010 with her dissertation focusing on material commodities of platinum and cobalt. She also spent three years as a Postdoctoral Associate at MIT before working as a Strategic and Critical Minerals Analyst for Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Defense Logistic Agency. In 2020, she joined the USGS and is now the Assistant Chief for the Minerals Intelligence Research Section.

She is incredibly well-versed in the topics of mineral research and commodities, and I had the privilege to meet with her and ask questions regarding mineral commodities in the cleantech arena. During our discussion, we touched on multiple topics surrounding minerals commodities in terms of the energy transition, and how she and her team approach these issues.

Her current research focuses on understanding mineral commodity supply chains all the way back to the mine. Her team gathers data on mineral commodities such as which countries produce, import, export, and consume them, and how this data can be made understandable in terms of prioritizing resources. In a recent article, Dr. Alonso presented recent data on the production and consumption of minerals across multiple sectors and countries. I used this paper to jump-start our conversation and as a base understanding of her work.

One theme of the paper was the first and final use of lithium and cobalt globally. From 2015 to 2018, not only did the amount of lithium increase, but the final use of rechargeable batteries and the final uses of transportation and computers increased significantly. Dr. Alonso warned that looking at data regarding raw materials of minerals alone can be misleading, as the importation of raw materials into the US has decreased, but that does not mean the US uses fewer mineral commodities. Dr. Alonso explained, “If you looked at the numbers, you could have potentially thought, ‘oh, we don’t need these mineral commodities as much as we used to,’ but that would be in many cases, false. We’re still consuming all those minerals, but we’re not necessarily understanding where those minerals are coming from anymore because we’re seeing that as just, ‘oh, I bought a laptop,’ and not,’ oh I bought something that contains neodymium, lithium, and cobalt.’”

As far as US dependency on foreign mineral imports, Dr. Alonso explained that there are no clear answers, but by putting all of the eggs in one basket with the lithium battery supply chain, there is more vulnerability. In the US, Dr. Alonso explained that one of the greater vulnerabilities in the supply chain is the smelting and refining stages. She mentioned how there are gaps in the lithium battery supply chain in the smelting and refining material processing stages for multiple minerals. “So it’s not just lithium when you think about lithium batteries,” she said, “You think a lot about lithium and cobalt, but really there’s a lot of other mineral commodities that go in it.” Other minerals such as nickel, manganese, copper, graphite, and silicon. Different battery chemistries require different mineral commodities, some of which are completely imported.

Dr. Alonso said how the US mines nickel and copper, but does not refine the nickel; the US does not mine cobalt, either. According to the USGS, graphite has not been mined in the states since the 1950s. She expressed that, “The concern is that the availability of these mineral commodities is going to slow our efforts towards adopting clean energy technologies because of those delays.”

When I asked Dr. Alonso about how she approaches the supply chain issues regarding lithium batteries, she shared: “For lithium, I tend to go even further back and think about just cars.”

She explained her thought process from Americans’ wants and needs for a car, getting from point A to B in a quick, and cost-efficient way. Then she starts thinking about car companies, and how they are focusing on electric vehicles. From there she explained how if you are only looking at electric vehicles, you then start thinking of lithium-ion batteries, but then you are looking at lithium-iron-phosphate batteries versus lithium-cobalt batteries, but lithium-cobalt batteries are truly lithium-cobalt-nickel-manganese batteries. And even then, that is just the cathode side of the battery. The anode side is where she begins to think about graphite, and also silicon due to their higher energy capacity. But silicon has technical problems in that it expands and contracts within the battery making 100% silicon anodes unreliable. From there, she looks at how companies are increasing battery capacity to keep cars running longer and customers happy.

“So those are all the types of materials that I’m thinking about when I think about lithium, and then I have to think about, OK, which one’s going to be adopted? How can I predict where innovation is going to occur? And so that is sort of how I think about it when I break down lithium batteries.”

When thinking about lithium batteries and their supply chains, it is crucial to look at all the moving pieces. Dr. Alonso explained to me, “Once you get into the details on a lot of these supply chain issues, you realize it’s not like there’s a right and a wrong answer, it’s really a very nuanced perspective. It’s an understanding of risk and risk management probabilities. It’s complicated.” The chemistry behind lithium batteries and electric vehicles is complicated, but the supply chains surrounding them are infinitely more.

Critical mineral commodities such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite will continue to be a part of the global mineral supply chain and play a crucial role in the energy transition. From lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles to rare-earth metal magnets in wind turbines, and silicon in solar modules, mineral commodities affect almost every piece of cleantech.

About the Author

This article was written by Chandler Deese, a first-year student at UNC majoring in Geological Sciences. She is an IE Cleantech intern involved with the Battery Materials and Supply Chains and Deep Sea Mining panels for the UNC Cleantech Summit.