Almost 14,500 kilometres from the dusty Congo savanna, miners have hit on an entirely new source of cobalt -- the rare mineral at the heart of the electric-car boom. And not only can they take coffee breaks, when they take a break, they can grab a donut at Tim Hortons.
Scientists working for American Manganese Inc., located in the suburbs of Vancouver, B.C., in Canada, have developed a way to produce enough of the bluish-gray metal to power all the electric cars on the road today without drilling into the ground: by recycling faulty batteries.
It’s one of many technologies that entrepreneurs are patenting to prepare for a time when electric cars outnumber polluting gasoline engines, turning the entire automotive supply chain upside down in the process. Instead of radiators, spark plugs and fuel injectors, the industry will need cheap sources of cobalt, copper and lithium.
“Mining batteries is much more profitable than mining the ground,” said Larry Reaugh, the president of American Manganese, which is patenting a method to draw out all of the metals in rechargeable batteries. “Rather than mining ore that’s two per cent cobalt, you’re mining a battery that has 100 per cent cobalt in it.”
Innovators like him have made so much progress that the likes of Tesla Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp. could count on recycling for 10 per cent of their battery material needs through 2025 if companies roll out large schemes, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That will ease pressure on lithium and cobalt, whose prices have more than doubled in the past year.
Finding new sources of cobalt, in particular, could be a game-changer because more than half of the relatively rare metal is sourced in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Not only is it one of the world’s poorest countries, doing business there is tough after decades of violence and corruption. Some artisanal mines still use child labor.
American Manganese wants to recycle the one in 10 lithiumion batteries -- used in everything from home electronics to smart phones -- that fail quality-control tests and end up in hazardous-waste dumps. Doing this could yield as much as 3,600 tonnes of cobalt, according to Reaugh. If true, that’s equal to the material used in all EVs on the road this year.
Add in the 311,000 tonnes of electric car batteries that Bloomberg New Energy Finance anticipates will stop working by 2025, and the potential trove of metals grows exponentially.
Recycling could have a “stabilizing effect” on battery metal prices, said George Heppel, a consultant at London-based commodity analysis company CRU Ltd.