Lithium, Cobalt, and Why They Are No Problem

I posted this as a comment over at Tallbloke’s place, but figured I ought to save a copy here, too.

While yes, the “boom” in DR Congo has turned their world upside down, the implied subtext that DR Congo is critical to the whole modern world due to the use in Lithium Batteries and “running out” is going to limit that world, well, it’s a common story, but only a story.

Now Tallbloke didn’t push that line, but it is in the lead-in paragraph.

Please: Whenever you see the “Running out!!!” scare or the “Sustainable” propaganda marker, immediately turn your BS Detector to HIGH. It universally leads back to Limits To Growth and their lousy “computer model” that plotted exponential growth against fixed limits and predicted (pardon, they insist on calling their predictions “projections”, as though that was really any different) doom in our time. Well, really, doom about 1980 to 1990. But hey, whats a few decades and failed prediction between friends, eh? /sarc;

There can be no other result from crossing exponential with fixed. BUT, in the real world growth of demand for a resource is S shaped and supply is not fixed. Resources become reserves as the price rises enough to mine them. New methods of discovery, extraction, reuse, and refining are developed. Resource substitution lets us use other materials instead. (Just look at all the stuff made from plastics that formerly used wood, metals, bone, natural fibers, etc. and we can make plastics from oil, gas, trash, wood, straw, bacteria, and so much more. Carbon is truly a wonder atom.)

So as soon as you see “Not Sustainable” or a “Running Out!!!” scare, prepare to call “Bull Shit” on it.

With that, here’s the comment:

While DR Congo has a lot, there’s plenty in other countries too

Australia in particular.

The whole “Running Out!!!’ scare meme comes from Limits To Growth 1972 by Meadows et. al. written at the request of the Club Of Rome (the same folks brining you the Global Warming Myth). Please don’t fall into that trap.

The amount of reserves of a mineral are dependent on PRICE. As long as DR. Congo with Chinese “help” is the global low cost producer, it will have the most ‘reserves’. As prices rise, other places will become economical to mine (with more expensive labor) and those places will suddenly have more “reserves”.

Over time, better ways are found to extract the “ultimately recoverable resource” and even that increases.

Finally, there is resource substitution.

Lithium batteries DO NOT REQUIRE COBALT. LiCo is but one lithium battery chemistry. IF cobalt ever gets significantly expensive, makers will just shift to a different battery chemistry.

Become familiar with the many different types of lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium-ion is named for its active materials; the words are either written in full or shortened by their chemical symbols. A series of letters and numbers strung together can be hard to remember and even harder to pronounce, and battery chemistries are also identified in abbreviated letters.

For example, lithium cobalt oxide, one of the most common Li-ions, has the chemical symbols LiCoO2 and the abbreviation LCO. For reasons of simplicity, the short form Li-cobalt can also be used for this battery. Cobalt is the main active material that gives this battery character. Other Li-ion chemistries are given similar short-form names. This section lists six of the most common Li-ions. All readings are average estimates at time of writing.

Note that “six of the most common”. There are more lesser used too. I’m cutting out the text description, just listing the names. Hit the link for details.

Lithium Cobalt Oxide(LiCoO2)
Lithium Manganese Oxide (LiMn2O4
Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (LiNiMnCoO2 or NMC)
Lithium Iron Phosphate(LiFePO4)
Lithium Nickel Cobalt Aluminum Oxide (LiNiCoAlO2)
Lithium Titanate (Li4Ti5O12)

Note that LCO (the usual cobalt one) has a specific energy of 200 as does NMC that also uses some cobalt. BUT the NCA one is 250. (Nickel Cobalt Aluminum Oxide). Simply put, using more nickel and aluminum and less cobalt gives a better battery.

But even LMO (Lithium Manganese Oxide) is pretty good at 140 specific energy. Worst case is your cell phone is a little bit bigger and your car battery pack larger. Not the end of the world.

Figure 15 compares the specific energy of lead-, nickel- and lithium-based systems. While Li-aluminum (NCA) is the clear winner by storing more capacity than other systems, this only applies to specific energy. In terms of specific power and thermal stability, Li-manganese (LMO) and Li-phosphate (LFP) are superior. Li-titanate (LTO) may have low capacity but this chemistry outlives most other batteries in terms of life span and also has the best cold temperature performance. Moving towards the electric powertrain, safety and cycle life will gain dominance over capacity. (LCO stands for Li-cobalt, the original Li-ion.)

The thought being that the Lithium Titanate cell, being superior in lifespan and better low temperature characteristics will make a better car battery…

Then there’s the Sodium-Ion and Potassium-Ion batteries waiting in the wings, if ever needed or some researcher makes them “special” in some performance characteristic. They already exist, but at an early stage of R&D, so expect more to come. Panic over lithium “scarcity” is also unwarranted.

Again, only listing the names. Tech details in the link.

Lithium-air (Li-air)
Lithium-metal (Li-metal)
Solid-state Lithium
Lithium-sulfur (Li-S)
Sodium-ion (Na-ion)

Sodium-ion represents a possible lower-cost alternative to Li-ion as sodium is inexpensive and readily available. Put aside in the late 1980s in favor of lithium, Na-ion has the advantage that it can be completely discharged without encountering stresses that are common with other battery systems. The battery can also be shipped without having to adhere to Dangerous Goods Regulations. Some cells have 3.6V, and the specific energy is about 90Wh/kg with a cost per kWh that is similar to the lead acid battery. Further development will be needed to improve the cycle count and solve the large volumetric expansion when the battery is fully charged.

Cobalt in DR Congo is a Big Deal for the locals largely because it is cheap when they mine it. On the global scale, it really isn’t much of an issue. IF it ever becomes problematic, engineers will just design in some other battery and move on.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
This entry was posted in Economics - Trading - and Money, Energy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Lithium, Cobalt, and Why They Are No Problem

  1. hillrj says:

    The late Jerry Pournelle pointed out that nearly every element is present in sea water. It just takes energy to get it out. So energy cost is the limiting factor.

  2. Serioso says:

    The term ‘lithium battery,” as used by the press, is very nearly meaningless, and is well to point out, as Mr. Smith does, that there are many different lithium battery chemistries with very different properties. The LiCoO2 chemistry is almost certainly the most hazardous: When heated, CoO2 decomposes to cobalt and oxygen, so that, once a fire starts, the escaping oxygen turns a flame into a torch. On the other hand, LiFePO4 is generally considered safe, and has an amazing power density: Some manufacturers claim the battery can be discharged at the “15C” rate (i.e., complete discharge in four minutes). I know of a power-boat owner who uses them for engine starting, and they’re pretty good for small-boat trolling as well, since weight in a boat isn’t that important. The early Dreamliner fires were from LiCoO2, and how the FAA allowed such a battery to power airliner hydraulics is beyond my comprehension. If battery manufacturers were forced to reveal both the anodic and cathodic components, I’d feel a lot safer, but I suspect they mostly use cobalt oxide and would rather not tell the public.

  3. E.M.Smith says:


    A very good exposition of the issues. Well done.


    Also note that lots of dirt has lots of elements more concentrated than sea water but less than the best current ore. These are often treated as though they did not exist. When the best ore is used up, “suddenly” a giant pot more is “discovered” in that other source… Now each more dilute source is usually orders of magnitude more total resource. The odd consequence of this is that the more “good ore” we use up, the more of a given element becomes new resources… (Others observed this first, but I don’t know the reference).

    Take Coal: There is more energy in the Uranium in coal, than in the coal carbon. Yet we “throw away” the U in the stack dust. Just not worth the bother at the moment. Or “monzanite sand” that in the USA are essentially treated as garbage sand. In China it is mined for the “rare earth” component and the Thorium is tossed on the waste pile. In India, they use Thorium for fuel, and the rest of the sand is not so interesting. Yet for all three we have a basket of Thorium for power and “rare earths” in abundance. Just at the moment it’s cheaper to mine the best U ore and get “rare earths” from China. Yet there are millions of tons of those sands from North Carolina to Florida. But they are not a ‘reserve’ of anything for us, at the moment, and are “just sand”… Just like mountains of “coal ash” are not a Uranium mine, but have more power than the original coal burned… just waiting…

  4. jim2 says:

    On this note, the US surpassed it’s record crude production set in the 70’s. So much for M. King Hubbert and his ilk. And saying this is ‘shale’ oil instead of ‘conventional’ oil just doesn’t get it with me.

  5. gallopingcamel says:

    Cobalt has many uses related to its ferro-magnetic properties.

    Samarium-Cobalt magnets have impressive performance. Energy products as high as 33 Mega-Gauss Oersteds have been achieved which explains why we use them in “Wigglers” for Free Electron Lasers.

    Permendur is a 50/50 Iron/Cobalt alloy that saturates at about 2.4 Tesla compared to 1.2 Tesla for pure Iron. That is about as good as you can do without resorting to super-conducting magnets.

  6. gallopingcamel says:

    A serious “Dirty Bomb” would could be created by detonating a conventional nuclear fission weapon inside a truckload of cobalt ore. Cobalt 60 is a powerful gamma ray emitter with a half life of seven years.

  7. John F. Hultquist says:

    I usually bring this up when I encounter such stuff: Peak Copper

    “… the age of electricity and of copper will be short. At the intense rate of production that must come, the copper supply of the world will last hardly a score of years. … Our civilization based on electrical power will dwindle and die.” [1924]

  8. gareth says:

    Hi EM, Tim Worstall at the Adam Smith Institute wrote a good paper a while back about why we are not going to “run out” of minerals:

    “The No Breakfast Fallacy: Why the Club of Rome was wrong about us running out of resources”

    “it’s 7 am. Currently there is food in the fridges of the nation for breakfast. But in two hours time that will be eaten, gone, there will be no more. Therefore everyone will die because NO BREAKFAST.”

    The fallacy arises because doomsayers confuse mineral reserves with mineral resources. He also deals with why sometimes recycling makes us poorer. Worth a read :-)

  9. thor47 says:

    @John F. Hultquist
    Our civilization based on electrical power will dwindle and die.” [1924]
    Well that has to be true, doesn’t it? Nearly everyone born in 1924 and before is dead. :-)

  10. Chris in Calgary says:

    I was at a presentation on lithium batteries recently. Apparently there is a technology in development that uses ceramic cathodes and Manganese/Nickel anodes for lithium batteries.

    That, and no hydrocarbon liquid electrolyte. All of today’s lithium batteries are bathed in what is essentially gasoline, which explains why they ignite so easily. I was amazed when I heard that.

    The presenter (pushing his company’s stock, so caveat emptor) believed that this was 5 years away from commercial reality. If it pans out, this means 5-10 years until rollout and 10-15 years until the new cheaper, lighter, more powerful lithium batteries are massively available and Cobalt is no longer required for those.

    For those interested, the presenter represented nanoOne:, NNO on the TSX Venture exchange.

  11. A C Osborn says:

    But it may well make Batteries much more expensive, it is what usually happens when everyone jumps on the same band wagon.

  12. oldbrew says:

    IF cobalt ever gets significantly expensive, makers will just shift to a different battery chemistry.

    ‘in just one year, the price of cobalt has increased nearly 230%.’

  13. E.M.Smith says:


    Current cobalt price is a bit over $80k / ton.

    So about $40 / pound. IF it makes up about 25% of a battery (case being steel, then the other metals and electrolyte – IMHO it’s probably high at 25%) that’s about $10 / pound of battery. Since my laptop battery seems like about a pound and costs $65 to replace, even cutting the cobalt in half is not going to change the price much, nor did doubling it to $10…

    It is getting close to the “significant percentage” point, so with another double or two, I’d expect to see moves to alternate chemistries (or more mines opening). But the price will need to stay high for a year or two and be seen as not a “bubble and crash” for that to happen.

    Metals markets are volatile. It’s what they do.

  14. Haan says:

    Coal ash from coal plants contain a lot of rare earth metals and us scientists have developed profitable methods to separate these metals from the coal ash (fly ash) in a more efficient way than digging holes in Africa.

    Several institutes and commercial businesses are in the process of developing simple separator processes right now.

    Some eight years ago I did a quick scan for proven copper deposits world wide and found out we have approx. 600 tons of copper available for every inhabitant of the planet. Just relying on my memory now but I’m pretty sure the number was quite correct.

    So I fully underwrite the set thesis put in the world by the alarmists.

    Thanks for the article EM.

  15. Haan says:

    In the mean time I am totally fed up with the freaking idiots who want to stop us using fossil fuels, stop eating meat, stop the bio industry, stop using water, stop living in big houses, stop driving diesels, only driving electric cars (biggest nonsense ever), stop using guns, stop having babies, stop our civilization and eventually stop us from living and breathing as their totally insane view to save a totally hostile environment that produces a VEI7 volcanic eruption almost every century, magnitude 9+ earthquakes, Tsunami’s, floods, mud streams, storms, tornado’s, hurricanes, blizzards, droughts, deep freezes and heat waves time after time.
    I hate those idiots.

    They are the most dangerous threat humanity and our civilization ever faced especially because a lot of governments back them up, visa versa.

    In the Netherlands they just banned the use of 2006 diesel cars from green zoned city centers.

    I can drink their blood.

  16. Haan says:

    Off topic of course but our modern society, especially our cities, are vulnerable….

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