The battery metals boom isn’t over yet

We are living, it seems, in the age of battery metals mania. It wasn’t long ago that mobile phone sales had the capacity to send ripples through the battery metals industry. Now, with yearly electric vehicles sales expected to grow by a factor of 28 by 2040 — according to Bloomberg — the market dynamics have shifted somewhat.

Given each electric vehicle uses more than 10,000 times the lithium of a handheld device, it’s not hard to see why the sector has been the primary driver of the battery metals boom.

But there remains, of course, some technical confusion (former US President Donald Trump expressed concern at a recent rally in Virginia that battery-powered planes wouldn’t be able to fly in cloudy conditions — “What happens if the sun isn’t shining while you’re up in the air?” — or at night) in addition to matters of supply and pricing.

“Geopolitical uncertainty in Africa is affecting global cobalt availability, as lithium faces technical challenges and the supply of battery-grade nickel hinges on the success of new projects in Indonesia,” Bloomberg said in its Battery Metals Outlook report last year.

“Meanwhile, storage technologies in the green energy sphere are driving an increase in the use of vanadium — a metal with 10,000 times the abundance of lithium. Although currently too costly to be a threat to the Li-ion paradigm, it may not stay that way for long.”

So how might things look for battery metals going forward? 

Lithium

Though lithium had enjoyed a mid-pandemic boom, lithium carbonate prices slipped past $18,800 per tonne in early July, and now hover at roughly $18,700 — its lowest level since 2021, according to Trading Economics.

It is perhaps a sign of tighter-than-usual supply in 2024, brought on by weaker spodumene shipments from Australia and environmental inspections in China, according to a supply chain assessment by Morgan Stanley.

There is also speculation we may be in the “middle innings” of an EV recession. Although demand is expected to grow significantly, it is unlikely to grow with the same ferocity seen in recent years.

“During COVID, EV prices were increasing every day with panic buying of these vehicles ensuing. There was a shortage of vehicles globally and demand was greater than supply for a year or so over this time. There were also large rental car fleets going on large shopping sprees which added to this demand,” the report added.

“However, today there has been a trend towards decreased incremental buyer demand as evidenced through a residual value collapse … as well as a more prevalent perception that EV’s performance has failed to deliver on what was promised.”

Separately, at the Fastmarkets Lithium Conference in Las Vegas at the end of June, Morgan Stanley analysts said the risk-versus-reward for lithium was improving — “but we’re not there yet” — and that a final “supply capitulation” would be necessary before any market bottom can be called.

But the battery metals sector, of course, does not start and end with lithium. There are other options through which the same decarbonisation goals can be accomplished.

Vanadium

In May, Mining.com.au spoke to Julian Woodcock, Managing Director of vanadium-focused Viking Mines (ASX:VKA).

“I don’t think you’ll speak to anyone that doesn’t recognise the word lithium,” Woodcock said.

“They may not know much about it, but they know it goes in batteries. It’s commonplace now in people’s vocabulary. And I think vanadium has the potential to move into that space, at which point people will be more aware of the commodity.”

For the most part, vanadium is used to make metal alloys for high-strength steel production. Other applications include the production of ceramics, electronics, fertilisers, textile dyes, and synthetic rubber, as well as vanadium redox flow batteries (VRFBs). Compared to the lithium-ion variety, VRFBs offer an alternative considered to be safer, cheaper, and — with proper maintenance — technically capable of lasting forever.

The Australian Government has now recognised vanadium’s potential, and is planning to set aside billions of dollars in funding to support the sector, in addition to other critical minerals. It represents the biggest outlay of cash under the government’s Future Made in Australia policy, which has been designed to back technologies needed to transition to net zero and also establish more resilient supply chains outside of China.

Indeed, VRFBs have been around since the 1980s, but due to their size and scale, have not been commercially popular. That, says Australian Vanadium (ASX:AVL) CEO Graham Arvidson, could be about to change.

“In Australia, we have lots of vanadium so it’s a good opportunity for the government to align (it) into a solution for the energy transition,” Arvidson told the ABC in May.

“Where they are highly commercial are for these 8, 10, 12 hours or longer batteries, where existing technologies like lithium-ion start to lose competitiveness.”

Glossing over the emergence of a certain theme here, vanadium is another commodity for which pricing is an issue — its volatility over the years has made it difficult to get economically viable projects off the ground.

The price of vanadium flake currently sits at US$5.10 ($7.55) a pound. It’s a far cry from the US$10 level vanadium was at a year or so ago, but the happy news is that there are clear developments that would translate to a return to those higher figures.

Central to that would be the deployment by China of more VRFBs.

“For that reason, a lot of the vanadium manufacturers that use slags from steel production to produce the vanadium — which is where a lot of annual production comes from — have been just making it and getting it into the market to meet that increased demand, which has probably had an effect of reducing the price,” Woodcock told Mining.com.au.

A decision by the rest of the world to follow suit would surely consolidate whatever market growth might be realised.

“We saw a few years ago, 1% of annual production of vanadium went into batteries. It was reported in 2023, about 10% of the annual production of vanadium went into batteries,” Woodcock adds.

“And the forecasts we’ve seen put out by the likes of Guidehouse Insights and TTP Squared, — companies that put out information on the forecast of the commodity growth — are (expecting) anywhere between a 50% and 100% increase in the amount of vanadium required annually, probably by the end of this decade or into the early 2030s. So that uptake of the requirement for the vanadium redox flow batteries is probably going to be a big driver.”

For now though, it’s mostly a waiting game.

Graphite

Though graphite — the crystalline form of the element carbon — is technically non-metal, it features a number of metallic qualities: It is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, and has the highest natural strength and stiffness of any material. It’s capable of maintaining that strength and stability up to temperatures of 3,600°C, and is highly resistant to chemical attack.

Predominantly used in pencils, lubricants, polishes, and steelmaking, graphite also plays a role in the manufacture of batteries, as an active anode material in lithium-ion cells.

Annual graphite production is tipped to hit almost 1.7 million tonnes this year, according to Research and Markets, driven by supply growth from Madagascar, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Canada.

That trend is expected to continue, with global production forecast to grow at a compound rate of 10.7% to reach more than 3 million tonnes in 2030.

But unlike lithium and vanadium, natural graphite prices have held relatively stable over the last decade, with supply from North America currently sitting at US$1.30 ($1.93) per kilogram. According to market research firm Business Analytiq, that figure represents a marginal retreat from a recent peak of US$1.73 per kilogram in June 2022.

The broader spectacle

Indeed, it’s a hard case to make that the global battery metals sector — which includes other commodities like nickel, cobalt, and manganese — is ‘new’. It is, however, still emerging. Factor in a whole suite of market dynamics, and you’ll find it’s also constantly shifting.

There are few guarantees, but one battery makers can count on is that availability and price will be the determining factors.

“Maintaining the balance between cost, competitiveness and creativity will affect which metals they are able and willing to build into their products,” Bloomberg said in its Battery Metals Outlook report.

“In the coming years, a key variable in this area will be the disparity between metal supplier nameplate capacity and actual ability to deliver.”

Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

Write to Oliver Gray at Mining.com.au

Images: Unsplash, Australian Vanadium 
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Written By Oliver Gray
Originally from Perth, Oliver has a keen interest long-form journalism. He has written for a number of publications and was most recently Contributing Editor of The Market Herald’s opinion section, Art of the Essay.