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Study suggests lithium and cobalt for batteries may face supply risks by 2050

Lithium and cobalt are fundamental components of present lithium-ion batteries. Analysis by researchers at the Helmholtz Institute Ulm (HIU) of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) suggests that, given the foreseen scaling of battery demand up to 2050, each may face supply risks, albeit for different reasons. The researchers present these results in the journal Nature Reviews Materials as part of a cost and resource analysis of sodium-ion batteries.

… The supply risk for lithium, at least in the short term, is found to be in the geographical reserve concentration and not in the scale of reserves. However, the production of lithium will require substantial expansion, even if only parts of the presented scenario were to become reality.

For cobalt, the scenario-based demand analysis depicts a very different picture. Use of the existing nickel/cobalt-rich average cathode material mixtures would result in high cobalt demand by the battery industry. Currently, the battery industry already accounts for 50% of the total demand for cobalt. Considering present material mixtures and the scenario with large battery sizes, the estimated number of devices produced by 2050 is calculated to require an amount of cobalt that is twice that of today’s identified reserves. Therefore, in this scenario, the battery industry would place further strain on the already stressed cobalt supply, with today’s identified reserves already found to be strained with regard to the accumulated production of 35 years.

… The high demand for cobalt and the resulting supply risk emphasizes the necessity of decreasing its use in batteries. However, at present, the use of cobalt is still often necessary for cathode materials with high energy density owing to its stabilizing effect in layered oxides (including NCM(622) and NCA).

—Vaalma et al.

Cobalt-free battery technologies, including post-lithium technologies based on non-critical elements such as sodium, but also magnesium, zinc, calcium and aluminium, represent possibilities to decrease the dependency and avoid the criticality of lithium and cobalt supplies in the long term, the researchers suggest.

Estimated number of devices and related energy demand for 2016–2050. a | The total numbers of reference devices that are estimated to be produced in the scenario between 2016 and 2050, together with the range in battery size for each type of reference device. The numbers of devices were determined using available market analyses and long-term projections. b | The energy-storage demand for the reference devices. The energy-storage demand is calculated by multiplying the number of devices by the individual battery size. The minimum and maximum energy-storage demand corresponds to the range in battery size for the reference devices, which accounts for factors such as the size of a tablet or the driving range of an electric vehicle. Vaalma et al. Click to enlarge.

In general, the rapidly growing market penetration of LIBs for electromobility applications, such as fully electric cars, will lead to an increasing demand for raw materials, especially with respect to lithium and cobalt.

—Professor Stefano Passerini, who supervised the study together with Dr. Daniel Buchholz at the Helmholtz Institute Ulm

Their scenario-based analysis until 2050 for various applications of batteries shows that the shortage and price increase of cobalt are likely to occur, since the cobalt demand by batteries might be twice as high as the today’s identified reserves. In contrast, today’s identified lithium reserves are expected to be much less strained, but the production will have to be strongly upscaled (possibly more than ten times, depending on the scenario) to match the future demand.

Battery size and element requirements for selected reference devices. The amounts of lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese required for the batteries in the reference devices are calculated for batteries using nickel/cobalt-rich average materials mixtures that are used at present (panel a) and for fictive average materials mixtures that require less cobalt and nickel owing to increased shares of LiFePO4 (LFP; panel b). For portable electronics (panel c), the use of LFP is not expected. The bars for each element represent relative ratios based on the total amount of lithium, cobalt, manganese and nickel. Vaalma et al. Click to enlarge.

However, both elements additionally suffer from strong geographical concentration, moreover in countries which are reported to be less politically stable. According to the researchers, this gives rise to strong concerns about a possible shortage and associated price increase of LIBs in the near future.

It is therefore indispensable to expand the research activities towards alternative battery technologies in order to decrease these risks and reduce the pressure on cobalt and lithium reserves.

—Daniel Buchholz

Post-lithium systems are especially appealing for electromobility and stationary applications. This is why it is both very important and urgent to unlock their potential and develop these innovative, high-energy batteries towards market maturity.

—Stefano Passerini, HIU deputy director

These results are further confirmed by the global scenario for battery applications in the field of electromobility until the year 2050, recently developed at HIU and published as a chapter in the book “Behaviour of Lithium-ion Batteries in Electric Vehicles”.

The future availability of cobalt for the mass production of LIBs has to be classified as very critical, which is also evident from the price increase of cobalt higher than 120% within one year (2016-2017).

—HIU system analyst Dr. Marcel Weil

In addition, the establishment of a battery economy with a high rate of recycling would certainly be imperative to decrease the pressure on critical materials.

Both studies highlight the importance of new battery technologies based on low-cost, abundant and, at best, non-toxic elements, demonstrating the importance of their further development in order to decrease the pressure on critical resources.

To address this need, KIT and University of Ulm joined their efforts in the proposal for a Cluster of Excellence Energy Storage Beyond Lithium: New Storage Concepts For A Sustainable Future, focusing on the development of sodium-ion, magnesium-ion and other batteries based on abundant materials.

The Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (ZSW) and the Justus-Liebig University Gießen are also involved in these efforts.


  • C. Vaalma, D. Buchholz, M. Weil and S. Passerini (2018) “A cost and resource analysis of sodium-ion batteries“ Nat. Rev. Mater. 3, 18013 doi: 10.1038/natrevmats.2018.13

  • M. Weil, S-. Ziemann, J. Peters: “The Issue of Metal Resources in Li-Ion Batteries for Electric vehicles.“ in: “Behaviour of Lithium-ion Batteries in Electric Vehicles.“ Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier 2018



Remember peak oil? It turns out that most commodity prices go down over time as better extraction techniques come on line. Also, the more critical element is cobalt and that is likely to be replaced in batteries as newer technologies come on line. Cobalt and lithium shartages will not cause the end of civilization.


Develop magnesium sulfur.


Curious, seeing neither of these materials turn into smoke and spread in the atmosphere. They remain concentrated in the cells at the end of their life just as they were at the start...

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