“The growing demand for key materials can increasingly be met by technological advances, battery recycling, and global cooperation,” said Chinese battery giant CATL’s CEO Robin Zeng, attending the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos.
“At the end of the day, when we achieve 100% electric cars, there will be a very tiny amount of new critical materials to be mined,” he added.
During the session “Avoiding a Crunch in Critical Minerals” held on Wednesday, Dr. Zeng said that innovation is the core driver in ensuring a resilient supply chain of critical minerals. As lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries continue to increase market share globally, there will be less demand for critical minerals such as cobalt and nickel.
In the meantime, advancing mining and refinery technology helps increase lithium supply and alleviate the shortage. “If you think about it, five years ago, people were only mining ores containing 1.8 % lithium, and now they can get 0.3 % lithium ores,” Zeng explained. “Improved technology is driving this change.”
Increasing energy density lies at the heart of battery technology, helping improve material efficiency and, therefore, reducing the demand for raw materials.
“Through innovative battery design, state-of-the-art battery technology today is able to deliver a range of 100 km with 12 kWh battery capacity, compared with the industry average of 15 or 16 kWh, which translates into a significant decrease in demand for critical materials for the same range,” Zeng indicated.
Another way to reduce dependency on critical materials like lithium is to find a lower-cost alternative, such as sodium-ion batteries or cobalt-free cathode materials.
In 2021, CATL launched its first generation of sodium-ion batteries, and it is now developing its second-generation sodium-ion batteries, allowing affordable cars with a driving range of 400 to 500 kilometers, according to Zeng.
Zeng also stressed the transformative role of battery recycling. “Most battery materials can be recycled and reused effectively, unlike oil, which cannot be recycled.” Together with its subsidiary Brunp, CATL has achieved a recovery rate of 99,6% for nickel, cobalt, and manganese and 91% for lithium.
“The demand for critical minerals might increase by five times in the next 10 years, considering the fast growth of the industry,” said Dr. Zeng at the panel. “But at the end of the day, when we achieve 100% electric cars, there will be a very tiny amount of new critical materials to be mined.”
“CATL’s goal is to make high-quality energy technology accessible across the globe, helping to achieve international sustainability goals,” Zeng concluded. He addressed the importance of collaboration among stakeholders, stressing the need to share technology, including recycling technology, to fight climate change.
In April 2023, CATL announced a plan to achieve carbon neutrality in all its battery manufacturing facilities by 2025 and across its battery supply chain by 2035. Robin Zeng mentioned the difficulty of achieving this goal and emphasized the role of renewable energy in the supply chain. “That’s why when we are selecting suppliers, we are always asking them ‘Where are you located?’ and ‘Do you have green energy?’ etc.”
The integrity of the supply chain is critical for a just EV transition. Zeng indicated that through the battery passport program, which was unveiled by the Global Battery Alliance during last year’s meeting in Davos, people can trace a battery’s whole lifecycle data by simply scanning a QR code.
A battery passport is a transparent enabler across the supply chain that can effectively facilitate battery recycling management, cross-border trade, and battery circularity, further promoting global EV transition.
EV transition will require efforts from all parts of society, from government leaders to businesses to NGOs and even consumers themselves, according to Dr. Zeng. “For example, the governments should support battery recycling by allowing qualified technology companies rather than small workshops to refurbish and recycle batteries.”