EV batteries will not replace lead-acid units yet, executive says

Lead-acid batteries used to power traditional vehicles should not be discounted just yet because the batteries used in electric vehicles (EVs) need to overcome a number of hurdles before the latter can retain significant market share in the automotive market, according to Doe Run Co vice president of sales and marketing Jose Hansen.

“EVs are at the very end of the path, but you need to go slowly, step by step, to get to that point,” he said. “Some people want to jump from zero to 100, but they forget they need to walk slowly.”

The sourcing of raw materials necessary for the makeup of the batteries is one of the main challenges they face, Hansen said. “I don’t think there will be enough raw material to meet demand. To build all of those batteries that people are thinking.”

The current dominant formulations for lithium-ion batteries used in EVs are nickel-cobalt-manganese and nickel-cobalt-aluminium, and are expected to remain so for “for the foreseeable future,” one analyst said recently.

Since the dominant batteries for EV use have a high nickel content, nickel consumption in EV batteries is forecast to rise to about 220,000 tonnes in 2025 from 40,000 in 2016, he said, noting that an anticipated expansion in EV sales would likely exacerbate the predicted structural shortage in nickel during the same period.

Indeed, the nickel price has soared recently due to optimism about EV sales. The London Metal Exchange’s three-month nickel contract closed at $12,350 per tonne ($5.60 per lb) on November 10, up 3.9% from $11,890 per tonne ($5.39 per lb) on October 26.

Other hurdles include building enough power stations necessary to recharge all of the EVs expected to be produced and generating enough electricity for those stations to recharge the EVs. An “incredible amount of power” is going to be needed for the stations, but it’s unclear where this power will be generated from, Hansen said.

Some countries, such as China, plan to use coal to generate the necessary power, “but if you do that, you’re still going to be generating carbon dioxide and all of those gases that you want to avoid by using EVs,” he said.

Lead battery producers “point out that EV enthusiasts have yet to figure out where all the power to fuel their batteries will come from and where it will be stored, so the demise of the lead battery may be premature,” INTL FCStone metals analyst Edward Meir said in a report on November 6.

Lithium-ion batteries also contain elements that are highly reactive and the batteries are known to sometimes be combustible, Hansen said. “You never know what might happen. There have been so many incidents with lithium-ion batteries.”

Meanwhile, lead-acid batteries “are always safe. These batteries have a long history of being one of the most tightly regulated industries in the United States. They are known to be a reliable, safe and trusted storage source,” he said.

In addition, it’s still unclear how to recycle lithium-ion batteries, Hansen said. “If you ask battery producers about the recycling, they won’t give you any answer because there is no plan. They don’t know.”

But between 2009 and 2013, the recycling rate of lead available from lead-acid batteries in the US was 99%, according to a study commissioned by the Battery Council International.

Furthermore, lead-acid batteries are used in start-stop vehicles, which is “the next biggest step in the electrification of cars” before EVs, Hansen said.

According to the International Lead and Zinc Study Group (ILZSG), 50% of all new automotive sales in Europe were start-stop in 2015, a figure that is expected to grow to more than 80% by 2020.

The percentage of sales of start-stop vehicles in the US, Japan and China is lower, but is expected to grow quickly in the next year or two, according to ILZSG secretary general Paul White.

Finally, lead-acid batteries are still used in EVs for certain applications, according to Hansen, even though the vehicles are powered by lithium-ion batteries. While the battery needed is smaller than the one used in vehicles entirely powered by lead-acid batteries, they are still necessary. “For certain features [in the car], you cannot rely on lithium-ion batteries.”