LITHIUM CONF: High-content nickel batteries to remain predominant

Lithium-ion batteries with higher nickel content will be predominant in the coming years as the industry searches for improved electric capacity, market participants said during Fastmarkets’ 11th Lithium Supply and Markets Conference on Monday June 10.

However, NCM811 batteries – which have 80% nickel, 10% cobalt and 10% manganese – have a long way to go to become more cost efficient as its use demands lengthier treatment to ensure safety and durability, they added.

The NCM622 – 60% Ni, 20% Co, 20% Mn battery – category will lead market share at least until 2025, Chinese electrochemical cathode materials producer Pulead Technology Industry forecast.

“There’s still only a few cathodes with nickel content above 60%, but its use will grow in the next decade,” Pulead’s chief executive officer, Yuan Gao, said. “Cathodes with 50% and below will still dominate in China.”

Batteries with more than 60% nickel use lithium hydroxide in their cathodes, instead of carbonates for products with less than 50%.

Fastmarkets’ latest battery-grade lithium hydroxide (min 56.5% LiOH2O) spot price assessment was $14-15 per tonne cif China, Japan and Korea on June 6, unchanged from a week before. Prices are down when compared with $14.50-15.50 per tonne on May 23. 

The growing need for class 1 nickel, which is suited for batteries, is becoming an issue to the industry, McKinsey’s co-head of EV battery materials research group, Ken Hoffman, commented. Chinese producers are converting Indonesian class 2 nickel and capital expenditures more than doubled because of that, he added.

“Nickel supply is what concerns me the most,” Gao said. “With the strong growth of the EV industry, there are lots of investments in Indonesia in order to develop projects, but it takes time to go with this route. And I don’t know if we have much time left.”

McKinsey estimates total nickel mine supply to reach 2.47 million tonnes by 2025, from 2.09 million tonnes in 2017. Demand, on the other hand, is expected to grow to 3.36 million tonnes in 2030, compared with 2.19 million tonnes in 2017.

As there is no significant mining project to account for this lack of supply, the quick increase in demand could leave the market in a shortage by 2030, Hoffman said.

Fasmarkets last assessed nickel sulfate (min 21%, max: 22.5%; cobalt 10ppm max) prices in China at 23,800-24,300 yuan ($3,436-3,508) per tonne ex-works on June 4, down from 24,200-24,700 yuan per tonne a week before.