Germany chemical giant BASF and Russian mining conglomerate Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel) have inked a new deal for nickel and cobalt supply.
The deal will see BASF build a new factory to produce battery cathode materials in Harjavalta, Finland, adjacent to a Nornickel cobalt and nickel refinery. The deal seeks to capitalize on the potential transition of the German auto industry to electric vehicles, which will require an immense new supply of lithium batteries to power them.
“With the investment in Harjavalta, BASF will be present in all major regions with local production and increased customer proximity, further supporting the rapidly growing electric vehicle market,” president of BASF’s Catalysts division Kenneth Lane said.
To date, most of these batteries are sourced overseas from Chinese and Korean suppliers, leaving local companies out of the mix. The new partnership leverages proximity to turn raw materials from the mine straight into usable battery cathode materials that can be funneled directly to a local battery cell manufacturer at a lower cost than they might be sourced from remote suppliers.
Locally sourcing the very raw materials that are used in batteries was one of the key reasons Tesla built its Gigafactory 1 in Nevada, where there are plentiful lithium reserves.
“The agreement is an important element of Nornickel’s broader strategy to expand its presence in the global battery materials market and establish long-term cooperation with leading producers of cathode active materials,” said Sergey Batekhin, senior vice president at Nornickel.
When it starts production in 2020, the new BASF factory is expected to churn out enough cathodes to supply some 300,000 electric vehicles per year, which, at 60kWh per vehicle, translates to enough cathodes for 18 gigawatt-hours of battery cells per year.
Impressively, BASF said that the new Harjavalta factory will “utilise locally-generated renewable energy resources including hydro, wind and biomass.” As companies around the world ramp up global battery production in support of the electric vehicle transition, it is an opportunity for us to build smarter, more efficient factories.
That happens both by utilizing low-carbon renewables to power them and by building them in intelligent locations. Building factories in close proximity to either raw materials or customers reduces the amount of transportation required and, thus, shrinks the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process. Manufacturing EVs is one of the areas where, according to analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, electric vehicles have higher emissions than gas and diesel vehicles due to lower volumes and what have historically been inefficient manufacturing processes for batteries.
The new cathode factory is but a single cog in a greater machine spooling up at BASF that will see some €400 million ($462 million) being invested into building cathode materials for Europe.
From a pricing standpoint, the cathode is one of the more expensive parts of electric vehicle batteries, thanks to the concentration of cobalt in lithium-ion chemistries. As the sharp uptick in demand for cobalt has driven prices of cobalt up to new heights in recent years, battery cell manufacturers and electric vehicle builders are aggressively looking for ways to trim down the cobalt used in their batteries.
Tesla has committed to decrease its cobalt usage from 3% of the battery in June of this year down to 0% over the next 2–3 years, demonstrating that where there is a will, there is a way.
Featured image credit: Northvolt