The electric vehicle or EV revolution owes its existence to lithium batteries, and those batteries have a cocktail of specialized minerals to thank for their high performance. In most cases, that cocktail’s ingredient list includes cobalt and nickel, minerals that help deliver the long lifespan and range that consumers increasingly demand of EVs. 

But with hundreds of millions of new EVs expected to hit the streets in the coming decades, skyrocketing demand for nickel and cobalt could strain mineral supply chains. Fearing a supply shortage that would slow the EV boom, the U.S. Department of Energy is now proposing that we eliminate cobalt and nickel from batteries altogether.

Earlier this month, the Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries, a cross-agency group chaired by the Department of Energy, released the first ever National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries to guide the development of a domestic battery industry that helps the U.S. meet its climate targets. Among other goals, the blueprint calls for eliminating nickel and cobalt from lithium batteries by 2030 to develop “a stronger, more secure and resilient supply chain.” 

That goal is more challenging — and fraught — than it may sound. While experts say nickel- and cobalt-free batteries that outperform today’s commercial counterparts could be commercialized in the next 10 years, mass adoption by the EV industry is likely to take far longer. And while such batteries might reduce the American auto industry’s vulnerability to future supply shocks, it could also have complex impacts on mining abroad. Mining watchdogs, who worry that eliminating certain metals from batteries will increase the pressure to extract others, say policymakers and auto manufacturers should focus on responsible sourcing and battery recycling instead.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

EV batteries come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and chemistries, but the market is currently dominated by so-called NMC batteries, which contain nickel, manganese, and cobalt in their cathodes. All of these metals have a specific role to play: Nickel boosts the battery’s energy density and range, cobalt helps extend battery lifespan, and manganese helps batteries operate more safely at higher temperatures. The proportions favored by automakers are optimized “to give the best performance between parameters of lifetime, safety, cost and power,” said Jason Croy, a materials scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

Batteries that don’t contain cobalt or nickel already exist, but there are tradeoffs. Lithium manganese oxide or LMO batteries, used in the e-bike market and some commercial vehicles, are known for their high performance and long lifespan, but they fall short of NMC batteries when it comes to energy density. Cheap and durable lithium iron phosphate or LFP batteries have made inroads in the Chinese EV market, where Tesla uses them in its standard-range Model 3 cars. However, these batteries also have limited energy storage capacity and range compared with their NMC cousins. 

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“In general, going away from something like a nickel-rich NMC right now means giving up on energy or lifetime,” Croy said. “For the foreseeable future, nickel-rich batteries will be the choice for high-performance applications.”

That said, concerns over mineral scarcity and human rights abuses at mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC, where 70 percent of the world’s cobalt originates, have spurred manufacturers to significantly reduce the cobalt content of EV batteries over the past decade. The EV industry hasn’t faced the same kind of pressure to reduce its nickel use, but “there’s a lot of options on the table” should it want to, says Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University who is working on next-generation batteries. For instance, lithium-rich cathodes that contain little to no nickel or cobalt and store more energy than NMC batteries are an active area of research, though more work is needed to improve their lifespan for commercial applications.

Pressure to bring high-performance NMC alternatives onto the streets seems to be growing. A May report by the International Energy Agency found that global demand for cobalt and nickel could rise approximately 20-fold by 2040 if the world churns out lithium batteries at the pace needed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). In the U.S. alone, the amount of lithium, cobalt, and battery-grade nickel needed to electrify every light-duty vehicle on the roads surpasses the total amount of these metals mined globally in 2019, according to a recent Biden administration report on supply chain vulnerabilities. That same report concluded that the U.S. does not have the geologic reserves needed to meet its future demand for these metals, meaning it will likely continue to rely on foreign supply chains dominated by China, the DRC, and a few other nations.

David Howell, the acting director of the Vehicle Technologies Office at the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, says that concern over future scarcity of cobalt and nickel prompted the Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries to call for developing new batteries that eliminate them. Howell, who was involved with the establishment of the battery consortium last year as well as the drafting of the new report, says the Department of Energy and other research agencies plan to continue supporting basic research on alternative cathode chemistries and leveraging the purchasing power of the federal government to make the most promising alternatives commercially competitive. Howell says the Vehicle Technologies Office spends roughly $12.5 million on this type of research and development each year, and that the Department of Energy’s fiscal year 2022 budget request would “more than double” that annual investment.

“What we want to do is make sure that by 2030, we’ve demonstrated these materials can be used in EVs and be substituted by any auto company that wants to use them instead,” Howell said.

Viswanathan is “fairly optimistic” cobalt- and nickel-free cathodes that measure up to or even outperform NMC ones can be commercialized in 10 years. “It doesn’t require a new breakthrough invention,” he said. “It simply requires careful engineering and optimization.”

Kwasi Ampofo, the head of mining and metals research at energy consultancy BloombergNEF, is more skeptical. Eliminating cobalt and nickel from batteries “is a very easy thing to say, but quite difficult to actually attain,” he said, noting that it took current battery technologies decades to mature to a commercial level. 

In Ampofo’s view, if the U.S. government wants to reduce its vulnerability to cobalt and nickel shortages, it should be doubling down on battery recycling in order to create alternative supplies of these metals. The government’s recent battery blueprint also calls for beefing up EV battery recycling, but moving to cobalt and nickel-free chemistries could paradoxically make that harder, since these are two of the most valuable metals that can be recovered. If nickel and cobalt are eliminated from batteries, there will be less economic incentive to recycle, and federal policies mandating recycling, along with new technologies that make recycling more lucrative, may be necessary.

Eliminating nickel and cobalt from batteries could also lead to more mining of the metals that replace them, such as lithium and manganese, warns Benjamin Auciello, who coordinates a program called Making Clean Energy Clean, Just, and Equitable at the environmental nonprofit Earthworks. Instead of eliminating specific metals, Aucilello believes the Biden administration should “aim to mitigate the social and environmental impacts of extraction while putting recycling and public transit alternatives first.”

Saleem Ali, a professor of energy and the environment at the University of Delaware, suspects that the Biden administration sees resources like cobalt and nickel as “too much of a headache” given activist pressure to reduce mining over labor and environmental concerns. But Ali feels that divesting from these supply chains entirely is “parochial from an environmental justice perspective” because it leaves communities that depend on mining revenue without any clear path to economic development.

Thea Riofrancos, an assistant professor of political science at Providence College in Rhode Island, agrees that eliminating specific resources from global supply chains is “a complex thing from a global justice perspective,” said. While Riofrancos, like Auciello, thinks the U.S. should focus on recycling and reducing personal car usage to alleviate the pressure to mine, in communities where extractive industries are deeply ingrained, “the transition is challenging,” she said. “You need to invest in alternative livelihoods.”

“When you say cobalt-free, you’re saying ‘DRC, you’re going to be disarticulated from the global supply chain,” Riofrancos went on. “I’m not sure what justice looks like for the DRC is being snipped off from a potentially valuable global supply chain.”