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Lithium Prices Surge on EV Demand from China

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lithium prices

Lithium Prices Surge on EV Demand from China

Amid growing conviction on the bright future of electric vehicles (EVs), the scramble for battery metals like lithium is just beginning.

By the first week of 2022, prices for lithium carbonate, a key ingredient in lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, reached a new high of 300,000 yuan or nearly $47,500 per ton in China.

The above graphic charts the exponential surge in both lithium prices and China’s EV sales between 2015 and 2021.

How Lithium Prices Changed in 2021

After brief spikes in 2016 and 2017, lithium prices were on a downtrend until 2021. With that context, it’s safe to say that the year’s 497% surge was nothing short of dramatic.

Here’s how lithium prices changed in 2021, on a quarterly basis:

DateLithium carbonate price per ton in China*% increase in 2021
January 01, 2021$7,328.900%
April 01, 2021$13,396.9082.70%
July 01, 2021$14,024.4091.40%
October 01, 2021$27,733.70278.50%
December 31, 2021$43,732.80496.70%

*Represents prices for battery-grade lithium carbonate. Converted from yuan to USD via xe.com as of Jan 19, 2022.
Source: TradingEconomics

As producers struggled to keep up with rising demand for battery-grade lithium carbonate, prices increased six-fold in 2021.

This rise was amplified in October when Tesla announced a switch to LFP batteries for all of its standard-range cars. Previously, Tesla only used LFP batteries for cars produced in China.

EV Batteries and the Resurgence of LFP Cathodes

Why did Tesla make the switch?

LFP was the initial cathode chemistry used in lithium-ion batteries for EVs in China, the largest market for EVs. Over time, consumer preferences for longer driving ranges drove manufacturers towards higher-density lithium nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) cathodes, which can manage longer distances on a single charge.

However, most of the cobalt used in NMC batteries comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where cobalt mining is associated with several humanitarian issues. These concerns, along with the high material cost of cobalt, prompted automakers to look at alternative cathode chemistries.

This has caused automakers like Tesla to turn back to LFP cathodes, which do not require cobalt and are relatively cheaper to produce.

Lithium’s Electric Future

According to BloombergNEF, global EV sales were on track to hit 6.3 million units in 2021—nearly double the total of 2020.

However, despite recent growth, EV adoption has a long way to go, with EVs making up just 4.3% of global auto sales in 2020. This suggests that the future is bright for battery metals like lithium, which will likely continue to be in high demand.

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Electrification

The Key Minerals in an EV Battery

Which key minerals power the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles?

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minerals in an EV battery infographic

Breaking Down the Key Minerals in an EV Battery

Inside practically every electric vehicle (EV) is a lithium-ion battery that depends on several key minerals that help power it.

Some minerals make up intricate parts within the cell to ensure the flow of electrical current. Others protect it from accidental damage on the outside.

This infographic uses data from the European Federation for Transport and Environment to break down the key minerals in an EV battery. The mineral content is based on the ‘average 2020 battery’, which refers to the weighted average of battery chemistries on the market in 2020.

The Battery Minerals Mix

The cells in the average battery with a 60 kilowatt-hour (kWh) capacity—the same size that’s used in a Chevy Bolt—contained roughly 185 kilograms of minerals. This figure excludes materials in the electrolyte, binder, separator, and battery pack casing.

MineralCell PartAmount Contained in the Avg. 2020 Battery (kg)% of Total
GraphiteAnode52kg28.1%
AluminumCathode, Casing, Current collectors35kg18.9%
NickelCathode29kg15.7%
CopperCurrent collectors20kg10.8%
SteelCasing20kg10.8%
ManganeseCathode10kg5.4%
CobaltCathode8kg4.3%
LithiumCathode6kg3.2%
IronCathode5kg2.7%
TotalN/A185kg100%

The cathode contains the widest variety of minerals and is arguably the most important and expensive component of the battery. The composition of the cathode is a major determinant in the performance of the battery, with each mineral offering a unique benefit.

For example, NMC batteries, which accounted for 72% of batteries used in EVs in 2020 (excluding China), have a cathode composed of nickel, manganese, and cobalt along with lithium. The higher nickel content in these batteries tends to increase their energy density or the amount of energy stored per unit of volume, increasing the driving range of the EV. Cobalt and manganese often act as stabilizers in NMC batteries, improving their safety.

Altogether, materials in the cathode account for 31.3% of the mineral weight in the average battery produced in 2020. This figure doesn’t include aluminum, which is used in nickel-cobalt-aluminum (NCA) cathode chemistries, but is also used elsewhere in the battery for casing and current collectors.

Meanwhile, graphite has been the go-to material for anodes due to its relatively low cost, abundance, and long cycle life. Since the entire anode is made up of graphite, it’s the single-largest mineral component of the battery. Other materials include steel in the casing that protects the cell from external damage, along with copper, used as the current collector for the anode.

Minerals Bonded by Chemistry

There are several types of lithium-ion batteries with different compositions of cathode minerals. Their names typically allude to their mineral breakdown.

For example:

  • NMC811 batteries cathode composition:
    80% nickel
    10% manganese
    10% cobalt
  • NMC523 batteries cathode composition:
    50% nickel
    20% manganese
    30% cobalt

Here’s how the mineral contents differ for various battery chemistries with a 60kWh capacity:

battery minerals by chemistry

With consumers looking for higher-range EVs that do not need frequent recharging, nickel-rich cathodes have become commonplace. In fact, nickel-based chemistries accounted for 80% of the battery capacity deployed in new plug-in EVs in 2021.

Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries do not use any nickel and typically offer lower energy densities at better value. Unlike nickel-based batteries that use lithium hydroxide compounds in the cathode, LFP batteries use lithium carbonate, which is a cheaper alternative. Tesla recently joined several Chinese automakers in using LFP cathodes for standard-range cars, driving the price of lithium carbonate to record highs.

The EV battery market is still in its early hours, with plenty of growth on the horizon. Battery chemistries are constantly evolving, and as automakers come up with new models with different characteristics, it’ll be interesting to see which new cathodes come around the block.

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Electrification

Charted: Home Heating Systems in the U.S.

Which fuels do U.S. home heating systems use?

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home heating systems in the U.S. broken down by share of fuel sources

Charted: Home Heating Systems in the U.S.

Fossil fuel combustion for the heating of commercial and residential buildings accounts for roughly 13% of annual greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Decarbonizing the U.S. economy requires a switch from fossil fuel-combusting heating solutions to renewable energy sources that generate electricity.

Currently, the majority of new homes in the U.S. still combust natural gas for heating through forced-air furnaces or boilers. Just like cars need to be electric, homes will need to switch to electricity-powered heating systems that use renewable energy sources.

The graphic above uses census data to break down the different heating systems and fuels that are warming the 911,000 single-family homes built in the U.S. in 2020.

Types of Home Heating Systems

Most American homes use one of the following three heating systems:

  • Forced-air Furnaces: These typically have a burner in a furnace that is fueled by natural gas. A blower forces cold air through a heat exchanger which warms it up before it flows through ducts that heat the home with air as the medium.
  • Heat Pumps: The most common type of heat pumps are air-source heat pumps, which collect hot air from outside the home and concentrate it before pumping it through ducts that heat the air inside. They are usually powered by electricity. During warmer months, heat pumps can reverse themselves to cool the home, transferring hot air from the inside to the outdoors.
  • Hot Water/Steam: These systems typically work by boiling water (or generating steam) to the appropriate temperature using gas and sending it through a home’s pipes to radiators that heat the air.

How Home Heating Fuels Have Changed

U.S. home heating has been going through a transition over the last two decades. Electricity has steadily been replacing gas and biofuel/wood-powered home heating systems for new homes, and powers almost half of the heating systems in single-family homes built in 2020.

Here’s how the share of heat sources for new houses changed between 2000 and 2020:

Fuel2000 % of Heating for New Homes2020 % of Heating for New Homes
Gas70%55%
Electricity27%45%
Other4%1%

Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding.

While electricity’s share has grown since 2000, most American homes are still heated with gas largely because of the fossil fuel’s affordability.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), households relying on gas for space heating are expected to spend an average of $746 over the winter months, compared to $1,268 for electricity, and $1,734 for heating oil.

Heating in Newly-Built Houses Today

Of the 911,000 new single-family homes, 538,000 houses installed forced-air furnaces. Of these, 83% or nearly 450,000 homes used gas as the primary heating source, with 16% opting for electrified furnaces. By contrast, 88% of the 353,000 homes that installed heat pumps relied on electricity.

Here’s how the heating systems and fuels break down for single-family homes built in 2020:

System UsedHouses Built in 2020% Powered by Gas% Powered by Electricity% Powered by Other
Forced-Air Furnace538,00083%16%<0.5%
Heat Pump353,00012%88%0%
Hot Water/Steam8,00089%5%7%
Other/None12,00012%41%47%

Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding.

Fewer than 1% of new single-family homes used hot water or steam systems, and the majority of those that did relied on gas as the primary fuel. Around 1.3% of new homes used other systems like electric baseboard heaters, smaller space heaters, panel heaters, or radiators.

While gas remains the dominant heating source today, efforts to decarbonize the U.S. economy could further prompt a shift towards electricity-based heating systems, with electric heat pumps likely taking up a larger piece of the pie.

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