Material resources, the Achilles’ heel of battery Europe?

The use of batteries is at the heart of today’s lifestyles, and will be even more so in the decades to come. Today, the evolution of mobility, for example, brings with it the development of an entire sector. The question of the availability of materials for batteries arises, as different technologies are developed for the future.

Europe has decided to fight once morest the Chinese monopoly on the manufacture of batteries intended for electric mobility. Thus, a real European battery industry is emerging. Currently, lithium-ion batteries have almost all of the market share in the field of electric vehicles. If other models are developed by manufacturers, and for other uses, the lithium-ion model is now essential.

The objective of the old continent is to reach 25% of world production by 2030, by developing no less than 30 gigafactories, including five in France. This equates to a production capacity of 500 GWh per year.

This programmed growth in production made in Europe of batteries, justified by the electrification, also planned, of transport, will generate a growing need for materials, to produce them on a large scale. This is where the problems start.

First of all, what are the materials that make up the lithium-ion battery, which is the most manufactured battery today? These batteries are composed of a positive electrode composed of lithium and cobalt, and a negative electrode composed of graphite. The use of transition metals, having the ability to oxidize on charging and reduce on discharging to form new positive electrodes, will see manufacturers also use nickel, iron, or manganese.

The effervescence around the development of innovative batteries in the years to come does not allow today to predict which materials will constitute the batteries of the future. As for the near future, lithium-ion batteries are still in the process of improvement, and their production cost is falling year by year.

The question of natural resources therefore certainly arises. BMI forecasts demand for graphite to increase 18.9 times between 2019 and 2029. A staggering increase that must be anticipated.

For nickel, the volume of demand will be multiplied by 26! This increase calculated at the global level will probably be even greater in Europe, given the current investments. However, the European Union has no choice but to massively import these materials to support a high rate of production. Indeed, our continent’s import dependency rate is close to 100% for many materials such as lithium, graphite or cobalt. The major producing countries of these materials, such as China, Chile or the Congo, make France and the entire continent extremely dependent on these material suppliers to develop a competitive and sustainable battery industry. These tensions to come on the market of materials used in the composition of batteries already exist today, and partly explain theincrease in prices observed for materials such as lithium or graphite.

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In addition, at present, the international competition for the development of the most efficient batteries possible strains the production chains. A recent illustration of this phenomenon is the current difficulty for producers of cathode materials to keep up with the growing demand in Europe. Hence the need to approach Asian countries, China and Korea in the lead, for the supply of these materials.

To sum up, if Europe has decided to give itself the means to develop a real continental sector to meet its battery needs and develop massive electric mobility, it seems difficult to imagine real industrial autonomy at this level, both the needs in materials, and more contextually in components, is important. A figure to illustrate this fact: today, China has on its soil 80% of the world’s capacity for processing battery ore.

A first response was given by Europe on this point, with the desire to recycle these materials more and more in order to reuse them. An approach that might pay off in the long term, but which will initially affect the competitiveness of European industry in relation to the competition.

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