Nickel growing increasingly important in the coming electric vehicle revolution

May 24, 2018


A critical part of the strategy to address climate change is to change the way we move ourselves from point A to point B. The transportation industry is responsible for an estimated 14% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While the solution may take many forms, electric vehicles (EVs) are expected to play a big role in reducing pollution.

Clearly, since EVs are reliant on electricity, associated emissions are not zero, unless the grid itself is carbon-free. However, a recent study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory indicates that even in a carbon-intensive power grid, EV use results in fewer emissions than conventional alternatives.

Until recently, though, EVs were not meaningful in the scheme of things. 2017 was the first year in which more than one million EVs were sold, compared with over 88 million conventional cars and light commercial vehicles sold globally in 2016, but that’s just the start.

Nickel use in EVs set to accelerate

By 2040, some analysts expect that EV sales will eclipse those of internal combustion engines, displacing eight million barrels of oil per day. Those millions of cars, trucks and buses will require nickel-containing lithium-ion batteries. Today, according to market analysts Roskill, batteries use an estimated 3% of the world’s nickel supply, but this number is estimated to rise rapidly.

New chemistries

Nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) batteries, currently deployed by many automakers, use ratios of 33% nickel, 33% cobalt, and 33% manganese (referred to as 1:1:1). Others are already using 6:2:2 formulas (60% nickel, 20% manganese, and 20% cobalt). An effort is now underway to further tweak the NMC chemistry and create an 8:1:1 cathode using 80% nickel, 10% manganese, and 10% cobalt. Two Korean manufacturers, including LG Chem, have announced plans to bring these new chemistries to market in 2018. And other companies such as Tesla (which uses an NCA – nickel-cobalt-aluminum technology) are also anticipated to be moving to more nickel.

While non-nickel lithium-ion chemistries also exist, nobody has yet developed a technology that matches nickel for its density – the power to weight ratio – that is critical in cost-effectively moving these vehicles down the road. Nickel thus will be a major – and growing – player in the massive global deployment of electric vehicles in our race to save the planet.

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