Between the smoke and flashes you can’t see, but we are a technological society with feet of clay. Out of sight of the end consumer, the entire castle of gadgets depends on a fine line of supplies that can vanish before our eyes.
There are not only 1,500 million mobiles, the 350 million laptops or the 200 million tablets that are sold each year. We also want to bet on the electric car. What is the fundamental problem? What We do not know if we have materials for so much battery.
An immense hunger for batteries
Or rather, we know that there is material, what we know is if we can have it. According to current estimates, in the next ten years the world will need three to ten times more lithium per year of what we produced in 2015.
According to Nick Hodge, only Tesla’s Model 3 manufacturing plans alone would consume the entire annual supply of lithium in the world. The most direct consequence of this is that the price of lithium carbonate skyrocketed.
In 2017, electric cars far exceeded two million and the International Energy Agency estimates that there will be about 140 million in 2030. That, according to industry estimates, that will leave about 11 million tons of used batteries by 2030. However, in the European Union only around 5% of batteries are recycled.
Not least because, although lithium can technically be recovered from batteries, the process is long, expensive, and full of intermediate steps. One of the great technological challenges is this. However, lithium is a temporary problem.
The truth is that the lithium market, today, is tiny (especially if we compare it with the rest of the raw material markets). Until two days ago, the market was less than a billion dollars in size and 86% of it was dominated by four large companies. The good news is that 70% of the reserves are in Bolivia, Argentina and Chile and their exploitation grows at a good rate.
A problem of international politics
Most likely, battery construction is more constrained by cobalt or nickel than by lithium. We have already had supplies of both materials. But not because they are scarce, but because the countries that control the supply chain.
“It is not a risk of physical scarcityBut there are supply risks that could affect the price of not only lithium but also cobalt, manganese and nickel. They are very important materials, “explained Logan Goldie-Scot, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
And, for example, half of the world’s cobalt is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A country that, although it is becoming more stable, continues to have great institutional problems. The case of nickel is relatively better, but, although it is more distributed, the truth is that a single decision by Indonesia in January 2017, caused the price of the ton to almost double.
That is one of the true ‘Great Games’ being fought today: international politics is a fundamental element in the technological world and their balances (social, economic and environmental) will play a fundamental role in the future of technology.