In yet another lithium-ion battery shake-up, the common nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) cathode formula is about to undergo another rejig after the world’s largest chemical company BASF said it was looking to reduce both the nickel and cobalt content in the cathode, while upping the manganese element.
The NMC-based lithium-ion battery is commonly used in electric vehicles and BASF expects altering the battery recipe to including more manganese will slash battery costs – making electric vehicles (EVs) cheaper.
Under BASF’s proposed new move, it will start manufacturing NMC cathode material to comprise 70% manganese, while nickel will be cut to 20% and cobalt to a maximum of 5%.
According to a BASF document Reuters sighted, production of this new NMC cathode material would begin in 2021.
Commenting on BASF’s move, Bryah Resources’ (ASX: BYH) managing director Neil Marston told Small Caps it was understandable due to high cobalt prices and the ethical and supply issues surrounding sourcing cobalt, which is critical ingredient in the NMC cathode mix.
“I would expect that BASF are not going to be the only battery manufacturer looking at this problem if they see manganese as a big part of the solution,” Mr Marston said.
“Using manganese will lower the price of batteries, which is vitally important as batteries make up a huge portion of the overall cost of an EV.”
He added that by bringing the EV cost down, it would put the vehicles within reach of everyday consumers.
And this could potentially accelerate the uptake of EVs on roads world-wide.
Mr Marston pointed out the global community will profit from EVs being in the hands of the masses through the “tangible environmental benefits” including a decrease in air pollution.
Lithium-ion battery recooked
For the last 12 months, BASF and other cathode material and battery manufacturers have been lowering the cobalt content in the battery and substituting it with nickel, in response to supply and price constraints, as well as human rights abuse allegations clouding the minerals’ value chain.
Around 60% of the world’s cobalt arises out of the Democratic Republic of Congo where unregulated and unsafe artisanal mines are prolific, with the mines operated by men, women and children.
Prior to recent alterations, the NMC battery formula started out as one-third of each mineral.
But, as a result of the concerns darkening the cobalt market, battery manufacturers shifted towards incorporating more nickel while diminishing the cobalt in the recipe.
Only 12 months ago, battery manufacturers reported they were progressing to an NMC battery that was 80% nickel, 10% cobalt and 10% manganese.
However, this recipe is set to change again.
Advantages of manganese in NMC lithium-ion battery
BASF’s plan to incorporate more manganese isn’t purely based on price and ease of sourcing the material.
Speaking with Small Caps, Euro Manganese (ASX: EMN) president and chief executive officer Marco Romero said when used in an NMC lithium-ion battery, manganese creates a stable physical structure that allows lithium ions to travel freely and efficiently between the cathode and the anode in the battery during charging and discharging.
“This works equally well for liquid electrolyte and solid-state lithium-ion batteries.”
Mr Romero explained that this was because of the mineral’s unique electrochemical properties.
Manganese is mostly used to produce steel alloys where it enhances strength, resistance and workability.
A manganese steel comprises about 13% of the mineral and this alloy is frequently used to make railway tracks, safes, rifle barrels and prison bars.
However, the rapidly growing energy storage sector has driven consumption of niche manganese products such as high purity manganese sulphate monohydrate, which is used in lithium-ion battery cathodes.
As BASF starts generating NMC cathode material with larger quantities of manganese, demand for niche manganese products could sky-rocket.
Despite the projected increased uptake, Mr Marston said the manganese sector was big enough to supply both steel and energy storage markets without running up raw material prices.
But, he said this would be a different story for manganese sulphate, and other niche manganese products used in the surging energy storage industry.
Mr Romero agreed, saying he was “very interested” in learning more about BASF’s plans, because they were a “game-changing” step in the electric vehicle lithium-ion battery chemistry.
“By making efficient use of manganese, a metal that is more abundant and less expensive than nickel and cobalt, BASF may have achieved one of the most important breakthroughs in battery science since the discovery of NMC cathode chemistry,” Mr Romero added.