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  • Writer's pictureKieran O'Regan

Beneath the Surface: A Microscopic Exploration of Battery Supply Chains

Image of battery with plant inside with a lithium mine in the background

About:Energy launches a new product to understand battery supply chains. ‘Analyse’ presents crucial data for stakeholders, providing insights into raw material content of batteries to assess the costs, risks, and sustainability of technologies used.

Supply Chain Shortage

Every mobile phone, laptop, and electric vehicle is powered by a battery, the roots of which trace back to assets across Argentina, DRC, Indonesia, Australia, and South Africa. Elements such as iron, cobalt, lithium, manganese, and nickel are essential for battery production. These elements determine the cost, functionality, and environmental footprint of batteries - information often hidden from the end user. About:Energy is changing this narrative, offering an unprecedented depth of supply chain transparency into leading battery technologies.

While the battery management system in an electric vehicle (EV) treats the battery like a “black-box” and pays little attention to the materials inside, the chemical makeup of an EV battery can, in fact, lead to the success or failure of EV programmes. The surging demand for these raw materials, led predominantly by the rapid growth of electric vehicles and renewable energy storage, has created significant demand. Fastmarkets forecasts that demand for lithium will increase by 3.5× between 2022 and 2030, reaching over 2.7 million tonnes lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE). Cobalt demand is set to double in this period, despite efforts by the industry to minimise and phase out cobalt in EV battery cells.

The materials used have implications for not only a battery’s cost but also the potential risks associated with its production and use, as well as its environmental footprint. Fastmarkets Chinese lithium carbonate spot price increased 15× between the lows witnessed in July 2020 and the high in November 2022. For instance, the price of lithium has more than doubled in the past five years, with similar trends observed for cobalt. These costs pose serious questions for the sustainability and affordability of the energy storage industry.

Tailored Insights

Technological advancements play a vital role in addressing supply chain challenges in the battery industry. Traditional lithium-ion batteries continually improve, reducing raw material demands due to their high energy density. Moreover, innovations such as sodium-ion batteries offer a promising path to lessening dependence on critical materials, leveraging more abundant resources like sodium. However, emerging technologies like solid-state batteries, while potentially safer and more energy-dense, could present new supply chain constraints due to their reliance on less mature materials and resources. Thus, understanding the landscape of these technologies necessitates a careful balance between performance attributes and supply chain implications.

“Solid-state batteries containing lithium metal anodes will likely require a greater kg/kWh of lithium than conventional, liquid-electrolyte based, Li-ion cells. As solid-state batteries evolve, and many variations of the technology emerge, it is difficult to model their impact on material demand accurately without sufficient data regarding their performance production scalability.” Muthu Krishna, Battery Manufacturing Cost Modelling, Fastmarkets

The ability to conduct elemental analysis is increasingly important in this context. By understanding the precise composition and performance of different battery chemistries, companies can make more informed decisions about how to build more sustainable supply chains, both economically and environmentally. This process typically happens in-house in large automotive companies, but smaller companies often struggle to build this resource, creating a potential blind spot in their supply chain strategy.

Elemental Impact

Understanding the exact composition of batteries is crucial for businesses in decision-making. From cost management to sustainability initiatives, detailed materials analysis offers valuable insight:

"Should-Cost" Calculation

Armed with exact raw material content data, companies can calculate precise "should-costs" for cell suppliers, empowering battery pack designers to negotiate fairer, better informed contracts.

Mitigating Price Volatility

By providing a detailed overview of battery materials, we enable companies to strategically plan against potential future raw material price hikes, thereby reducing their financial risk.

Sustainability Assessment

Our data enables a precise evaluation of a battery's carbon footprint. Companies can use this data to reduce carbon emissions and to develop greener, more sustainable battery technologies.

Unraveling Battery Design

Our analysis gives deep insights into the state-of-the-art battery design, including materials, design, and manufacturing processes, facilitating the development of innovative, more efficient battery technologies.

The ‘Analyse’ Report

Our latest offering performs post-mortem analysis on commercial cells from top manufacturers including LG, Samsung, Tesla and Molicel. This new report comprises of teardown and analysis of the cell to determine the elements or components within. Methods such as scanning electron microscope (SEM) and energy dispersive spectroscopy (EDS) are used, along with comprehensive physical measurements. For this blog, we've examined three widely used but outwardly similar cells: high-energy (LG Energy Solutions), high-power (Moli-One Energy), and long-life (Lithium Werks), illuminating key material distinctions for cells targeting different applications.

Across all three batteries (Figure 1), the choice and proportion of raw materials are selected to align with the desired battery performance, whether it's energy density, lifespan, or power output. The LG battery, designed for high energy, contains a significant amount of graphite (23.0% of the cell mass) and nickel (16.1%), which are crucial for enhancing energy density. The Lithium Werks battery is optimised for long life: it uses lithium iron phosphate (LFP), which is known for its stability and long cycle life. LFP cells do not contain nickel, manganese, or cobalt - instead, they incorporate iron (8.5%). The high percentage of "Other" components (60.0%) is attributed to lower value materials such as phosphorus and oxygen in the phosphate material. The Molicel battery, tailored for high power, has a balanced composition with a notable amount of nickel (16.7%) and graphite (18.3%). The difference in transition metals between the high-energy and high-power cells corresponds to the positive electrode active materials being NMC (lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide) and NCA (lihtium nickel cobalt aluminium oxide) respectively. Mapping these small differences in active material is important to the cost but also the sustainability of cells.

The origin of raw materials is integral to the final carbon footprint of the cell. Geology, ore grade, processing techniques, region and energy inputs create huge variability in this metric. For example, in terms of kg CO2 per kg of the same material, lithium carbonate or hydroxide impacts can vary by six to eight times, graphite can vary by ten times, and nickel sulfate can be eighteen times or more! This determines the environmental impact of any given design.

“Despite its relatively small contribution per battery, aluminium carries a significant impact per unit mass and needs to be included in the discussion surrounding battery supply chains.” - Robert Pell, Minviro CEO

Figure 1: Material breakdown by mass for three cells: high-energy (LG), high-power (Moli-One Energy), and long-life (Lithium Werks). (Note: Elements in the casing are included in ‘Other’)

Battery design is tailored to optimise specific performance attributes (see Figure 2). In the high-power cell, the combined contribution of positive and negative electrode active materials is 54.1%. This contrasts with the high-energy cell, where the combined active materials make up 56.3%. The high-energy cell's slightly higher breakdown is because of thicker electrodes, designed to minimise inactive contributions and maximise energy stored. Conversely, the high-power cell balances active materials and current collectors to improve the thermal performance. The Lithium Werks cell, designed for long life, has a combined active material contribution of 39.2%. Its larger casing contribution is notable, stemming from its 18650 cylindrical design, compared to the 21700 format of the other two. This design choice can enhance structural integrity and longevity.

Figure 2: Component breakdown by mass for high energy (LG), high power (Moli-One Energy), long life (Lithium Werks).

SEM images of the battery electrodes from the three cells reveal distinct morphologies linked to their performance attributes. The high-power cell has "spherical" graphite and a bimodal particle size in its positive electrode, optimising for rapid lithium movement. The long-life cell's LFP positive electrode features nano-sized particles, enhancing stability and cycle life. Meanwhile, the high-energy and long-life cells utilise flake graphite, striking a balance between performance and cost-efficiency. These active material choices directly influence each cell's intended performance outcome.

microscopic view of anode and cathode for different batteries

Figure 3: Microscope imaging of the positive and negative electrodes for three cells: high-energy (LG), high-power (Moli-One Energy), long-life (Lithium Werks).

Path to Sustainability

To compare how battery designs improve over time, we dismantled three high-energy cells to observe differences. Figure 4 highlights a clear trend in battery material optimisation from 2016 to 2023. The LG (2016) has an overall mass of 3.89 kg/kWh, with lithium at 0.10 kg/kWh and combined transition metals (nickel, manganese, cobalt) totalling 0.83 kg/kWh. By 2019, LG reduced the material inputs to 3.69 kg/kWh, with lithium slightly decreased to 0.088 kg/kWh and transition metals summing up to 0.74 kg/kWh. Tesla (2023) based on our teardown analysis and energy density projections (98 Wh projected, vs. 87 Wh evaluated in the lab) inputs will be reduced to to 3.64 kg/kWh, lithium nearly constant at 0.088 kg/kWh, and transition metals at 0.73 kg/kWh. This data demonstrates a drive towards reducing reliance on costly and less sustainable transition metals, while also achieving a more efficient, lighter battery design.

This data illustrates the significant amount of mining needed for a 60 kWh Tesla 4680 battery, excluding the stainless steel casing:

  • Lithium required is approximately 5.3 kg.

  • Nickel required is approximately 35.1 kg.

  • Manganese required is approximately 4.1 kg.

  • Cobalt required is approximately 4.4 kg.

The reduction in raw materials, especially transition metals, between 2016 and 2023 would have a direct impact on carbon emissions during battery production. Considering the transition metals alone, the difference from LG (2016) to Tesla (2023) translates to a reduction of 6.174 kg for a 60 kWh battery. This material efficiency not only implies a decrease in the carbon footprint associated with mining and processing these metals but also results in a lighter battery, which can further enhance the energy efficiency and range of electric vehicles, leading to additional CO₂ savings during operation.

Figure 4: Raw material efficiency of high-energy cells from LG and Tesla manufactured in 2016, 2019, and 2023. (Note: Elements in the casing are included in ‘Other’ and Tesla efficiency is based on analysis and energy density projections)

In summary, our new offering highlights the nuances of different battery supply chains for the first time, providing precise raw material content data. This transparency yields information on costs, risks, sustainability, and design innovations, making it an essential dataset for any company in the battery industry.

Download the full ‘Analyse’ Report in The Voltt

For more insights or information about our material analysis and to see how this can help your business, contact us today or sign up to The Voltt for free here. The ‘Analyse’ report for the LG M50 is available for free download in the platform.

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