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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Batteries, bottlenecks and myopic choices

The image above comes from the Visual Capitalist website in December 2019 ... just before Covid-19 burst upon the scene and borrowed the topic of global supply chains from the board rooms of large corporations and stuffed it down our collective throats.

I've only produced a small part of the graphic, the complete image spreads over multiple screens and is a warning to US battery makers that they are totally dependent on China. As Covid-19 tightened its metaphorical grip, we found the same thing with pharmaceuticals and PPE; who remembers when those initials meant point-to-point encryption ... or nothing at all?

So, it's not surprising that when a friend recently asked my opinion on a possible household bill-saving battery purchase, I started talking about supply chains.

Supply chain bottlenecks come in two kinds; which I just made up: financial and absolute. Everybody on the planet can make PPE face shields out of plastic ... because companies which can make plastic at significant scale are common. But what about face masks? They aren't as simple as they seem. The good ones (the "N95" ones ... the ones costing some dollars rather than tens of cents) are actually incredibly sophisticated. The polypropylene material is very different from an old handkerchief. This isn't cottage industry stuff. Nonetheless, the bottle neck was fairly rapidly solved by throwing money at it.

The other kind of bottleneck is absolute; meaning it isn't quickly solved with extra money.

Where do batteries come from? In particular Lithium-ion batteries. What kind of bottleneck is the house battery bottleneck? Firstly, it isn't just a house battery bottleneck, it's a more general bottle neck ... the Li-Ion battery bottleneck.

Look at the image above. It mentions nickel, cobalt, lithium and graphite. They should have added manganese ... it's also a player. Battery bottlenecks start with mining. Lithium atoms are light, while those of nickel, manganese and cobalt are all about 8 times heavier. So when you are ordering a thousand tonnes of lithium to make batteries, you'll need to order 8,000 tonnes of the other things you are using. Manganese and nickel are mined in the millions of tonnes, so they aren't much of a problem. This means battery makers would love to use these and dump cobalt, but it hasn't happened yet; despite decades of fine tuning Li-ion battery designs. Which leaves cobalt and graphite. Both of which are serious global bottlenecks in Li-ion battery production. These aren't financial bottle necks ... they are the other kind of critter; with big teeth and crushing jaw strength.

About 60 percent of the world's cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Some of the largest companies on the planet are being sued by the families of children killed mining cobalt in the DRC; including Google, Apple, Tesla, Microsoft and Dell. The first three of these are also fond of claiming moral high ground ... particularly Tesla's Elon Musk. But when it comes to a choice between cheap cobalt and children's lives, then the children will be rather like people on walking frames at Boxing Day sales.

In 2009, DRC produced 40 percent of the year's 62,000 tonnes of cobalt. A decade later, and the DRC produced 70 percent of the year's 140,000 tonnes. The graphite bottle neck is more subtle. Graphite is just carbon, but the kind used in batteries has a special structure, and that special kind is rather hard to come by or make.

But cobalt mining is just the start of the battery bottlenecks. Battery factories are also a big deal. Back it 2018, it was predicted that Li-ion battery production capacity would swell by a factor of almost 5 in the following decade; bringing it to just over 1 TWh (a terawatt is a million million watts).

How much is that? A Tesla model S battery is 85 kwh, so 1 TWh is enough to produce 12 million of these. Annual new car sales are about 90 million per year ... so even by 2028 and even assuming average batteries are more modest than Tesla batteries, some 70 million new petrol cars will be hitting the roads. In addition to the ones from the year before.

But what's this got to do with my friend and his house battery?

For every 10 people who put a battery in their house, that's one less Tesla car battery. If 100 million people across the rich world bought house batteries, then there would be no capacity for car batteries; assuming the 5 fold production capacity output materialises by 2028.

There are good ways of producing reliable household energy that don't require batteries. But there are very few climate ways of dealing with moving energy requirements.

So please. The question isn't "how much can I save off my power bill with a battery?", but "Do I really want to think only about my self?". South Australia's vote buying campaign to subsidise household batteries for people is simply brain dead dismal policy.

The battery issue is similar to other resource usage problems. The optimal decision for a person only interested in their own financial outcome isn't optimal for society as a whole.



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