The Trade Numerologist: The Battery Scramble

20 Feb 2018 John Miller

The booming market for electric cars like the Tesla Model S, Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius Prime is driving a strong shipping trade in lithium-ion batteries and the materials -- like lithium, cobalt and manganese -- needed to make them, forcing manufacturers to scramble for the resources, and creating new opportunity for manufacturers and shipping companies.

The race for these materials is crucial to the global auto industry and its suppliers. By 2030, electric vehicles are expected to account for over a third of cars on the road. Even though prices have been falling, batteries are a crucial part of every electric car, accounting for 25%-30% of the overall cost.

Lithium batteries were only invented in the 1970s and commercialized earlier this century, but their importance to global industry is growing exponentially. In the first 10 months of 2017, battery exports increased, dramatically, in nine of the world’s top 10 supplying countries, according to data from HIS Markit’s Global Trade Atlas.

Top exporter of lithium batteries, first 10 months of 2017

China $6.3 billion (+16%)
South Korea $2.9 billion (+53%)
Japan $2.1 billion (-0.2%)
U.S. $1.1 billion (+18%)
Germany $752.6 million (+59%)
Singapore $451.7 million (+45%)
Netherlands $334 million (+50.9%)
Hungary $315 million (+119%)
Austria $236.7 million (+7.5%)
Poland $203.4 million (+38%)

China in 2015 took over pole position from the U.S. as the top manufacturer of batteries, thanks in large part to Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd, or CATL. It’s challenging rivals like Japan’s Panasonic, and South Korea’s Samsung SDI and LG Chem. Tesla makes batteries at its Gigafactory in the Nevada desert it opened in 2014 with Panasonic as a joint venture.

The long game, however, belongs to China. It’s now the world’s biggest market for electric cars, with sales of around a million units a year. CATL, based near Ningde on China’s East coast, is setting itself up as a supplier to Volkswagen, BMW, Toyota, Honda and other world-class carmakers, and adding offices in Europe and the U.S., as it ramps up shipments across the oceans.

Chinese exports, lithium batteries, 2012-2017

2012: $4.5 billion
2013: $4.8 billion
2014: $5.5 billion
2015: $6.5 billion
2016: $6.8 billion
2017: $8 billion

China’s drive to build and sell batteries is driving its appetite for materials needed to build them, like cobalt and lithium, and aluminum for the casing. A shortage could force up the prices of batteries, increasing the sticker price on cars for consumers all over the world.

Despite being in the name, lithium is only one of the commodities key to building batteries, say analysts. One essential, and problematic, ingredient, is cobalt, a rare mineral with properties ideal for battery production, such as a high melting point and conductivity for electricity and heat.

Over 40% of global cobalt production now goes to the battery industry, and that percentage is expected to increase. The total amount of cobalt used in electric vehicles is expected to increase to over 60,000 tons by 2025, from under around 10,000 tons last year.

It’s not that easy to generate cobalt, which is usually mined as a byproduct along with minerals like copper and nickel. Half the world’s cobalt production comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, meaning supply is vulnerable to conflict, political risk and corruption. China is now the world’s top importer of cobalt, most of which it gets from the DRC.

Top cobalt importers, first 10 months of 2017

China $1.7 billion
Japan $436.1 million
U.S. $432.9 million
Netherlands $297.3 million
Germany $181.1 million
UK $134.2 million
South Korea $101 million
Taiwan $93.4 million
France $66.2 million
Singapore $64.4 million

China is also the biggest importer of another key ingredient, lithium carbonate, most of which it gets from Chile and Argentina. Lithium prices in China have recently doubled, to over $20,000 a ton.

Lithium is widely distributed in the earth’s crust, but it’s hard to find in concentrated, elemental form, and expensive to mine and process at a cost that generates enough mineral to cover its extraction. That makes desolate plains and lakes in South America, Canada and Australia good places to mine. Chile is the world’s dominant producer.

Top lithium carbonate importers, first 10 months of 2017

China $292.5 million (+113.7%)
South Korea $192.7 million (+53%)
Japan $160.3 million (+58%)
Belgium $73.2 million (+15%)
U.S. $68.3 million (+7%)
Russia $37.7 million (+48%)
Germany $35.1 million (+9%)
UK $15.3 million (+69%)
Spain $10.2 million (+43%)
Italy $10.1 million (+29%)

As technology improves and more factories are built with big economies of scale, lithium battery prices are expected to keep falling. That won’t just help the car industry. Lithium batteries are also used in power tools, military applications, and electronics like phones and laptops.

But the quantities in other applications are minimal compared to those now needed by the game-changing car industry. For example, the average laptop uses a handful of battery cells; the average Tesla vehicle has around 8,000.

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The Trade Numerologist is IHS Markit’s unique weekly look at global trade by award-winning journalist John W. Miller, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, using proprietary numbers from IHS Markit’s Global Trade Atlas database, the world’s most complete and accurate set of trade numbers.


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