The New Energy Era: The Lithium-Ion Supply Chain - Visual Capitalist
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The New Energy Era: The Lithium-Ion Supply Chain

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The world is rapidly shifting to renewable energy technologies.

Battery minerals are set to become the new oil, with lithium-ion battery supply chains becoming the new pipelines.

China is currently leading this lithium-ion battery revolution—leaving the U.S. dependent on its economic rival. However, the harsh lessons of the 1970-80s oil crises have increased pressure on the U.S. to develop its own domestic energy supply chain and gain access to key battery metals.

Introducing the New Energy Era

Today’s infographic from Standard Lithium explores the current energy landscape and America’s position in the new energy era.

lithium ion supply chain us china

An Energy Dependence Problem

Energy dependence is the degree of a nation’s reliance on imported energy, resulting from an insufficient domestic supply. Oil crises in the 1970-80s revealed America’s reliance on foreign produced oil, especially from the Middle East.

The U.S. economy ground to a halt when gas prices soared during the 1973 oil crisis—altering consumer behavior and energy policy for generations. In the aftermath of the crisis, the government imposed national speed limits to conserve oil, and also demanded cheaper, smaller, and more fuel-efficient cars.

U.S. administrations set an objective to wean America off foreign oil through “energy independence”—the ability to meet the country’s fuel needs using domestic resources.

Lessons Learned?

Spurred by technological breakthroughs such as hydraulic fracking, the U.S. now has the capacity to respond to high oil prices by ramping up domestic production.

By the end of 2019, total U.S. oil production could rise to 17.4 million barrels a day. At that level, American net imports of petroleum could fall in December 2019 to 320,000 barrels a day, the lowest since 1949.

In fact, the successful development of America’s shale fields is a key reason why the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has lost the majority of its influence over the supply and price of oil.

A Renewable Future: Turning the Ship

The increasing scarcity of economic oil and gas fields, combined with the negative environmental impacts of oil and the declining costs of renewable power, are creating a new energy supply and demand dynamic.

Oil demand could drop by 16.5 million barrels per day. Oil producers could face significant losses, with $380 billion of above-ground investments becoming worthless if the oil industry and oil-rich nations are not prepared for a surge in green energy by 2030.

Energy companies are hedging their risk with increased investment in renewables. The world’s top 24 publicly-listed oil companies spent on average 1.3% of their total budgets on low carbon technology in 2018, amounting to $260 billion. That is double the 0.68% the same group had invested on average through the period of 2010 and 2017.

The New Geopolitics of Energy: Battery Minerals

Low carbon technologies for the new energy era are also creating a demand for specific materials and new supply chains that can procure them.

Renewable and low carbon technology will be mineral intensive, requiring many metals such as lithium, cobalt, graphite and nickel. These are key raw materials, and demand will only grow.

Material201820282018-2028 % Growth
Graphite anode in Batteries170,000 tonnes2.05M tonnes1,106%
Lithium in batteries150,000 tonnes1.89M tonnes1,160%
Nickel in batteries82,000 tonnes1.09M tonnes1,229%
Cobalt in batteries58,000 tonnes320,000 tonnes452%
(Source: Benchmark Minerals)

The cost of these materials is the largest factor in battery technology, and will determine whether battery supply chains succeed or fail.

China currently dominates the lithium-ion battery supply chain, and could continue to do so. This leaves the U.S. dependent on China as we venture into this new era.

Could history repeat itself?

The Battery Metals Race

There are five stages in a lithium-ion battery supply chain—and the U.S. holds a smaller percentage of the global supply chain than China at nearly every stage.

Lithium-Ion Supply Chain

China’s dominance of the global battery supply chain creates a competitive advantage that the U.S. has no choice but to rely on.

However, this can still be prevented if the United States moves fast. From natural resources, human capital and the technology, the U.S. can build its own domestic supply.

Building the U.S. Battery Supply Chain

The U.S. relies heavily on imports of several keys materials necessary for a lithium-ion battery supply chain.

U.S. Net Import Dependence
Lithum50%
Cobalt72%
Graphite100%
(Source: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management)

But the U.S. is making strides to secure its place in the new energy era. The American Minerals Security Act seeks to identify the resources necessary to secure America’s mineral independence.

The government has also released a list of 35 minerals it deems critical to the national interest.

Declaring U.S. Battery Independence

A supply chain starts with raw materials, and the U.S. has the resources necessary to build its own battery supply chain. This would help the country avoid supply disruptions like those seen during the oil crises in the 1970s.

Battery metals are becoming the new oil and supply chains the new pipelines. It is still early in this new energy era, and the victors are yet to be determined in the battery arms race.

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Technology

Visualizing the Critical Metals in a Smartphone

Smartphones can contain ~80% of the stable elements on the periodic table. This graphic details the critical metals you carry in your pocket.

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Visualizing the Critical Metals in a Smartphone

In an increasingly connected world, smartphones have become an inseparable part of our lives.

Over 60% of the world’s population owns a mobile phone and smartphone adoption continues to rise in developing countries around the world.

While each brand has its own mix of components, whether it’s a Samsung or an iPhone, most smartphones can carry roughly 80% of the stable elements on the periodic table.

But some of the vital metals to build these devices are considered at risk due to geological scarcity, geopolitical issues, and other factors.

Smartphone PartCritical Metal
Touch Screen indium
Displaylanthanum; gadolinium; praseodymium; europium; terbium; dysprosium
Electronicsnickel, gallium, tantalum
Casingnickel, magnesium
Battery lithium, nickel, cobalt
Microphone, speakers, vibration unit nickel, praseodymium, neodymium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium

What’s in Your Pocket?

This infographic based on data from the University of Birmingham details all the critical metals that you carry in your pocket with your smartphone.

1. Touch Screen

Screens are made up of multiple layers of glass and plastic, coated with a conductor material called indium which is highly conductive and transparent.

Indium responds when contacted by another electrical conductor, like our fingers.

When we touch the screen, an electric circuit is completed where the finger makes contact with the screen, changing the electrical charge at this location. The device registers this electrical charge as a “touch event”, then prompting a response.

2. Display

Smartphones screens display images on a liquid crystal display (LCD). Just like in most TVs and computer monitors, a phone LCD uses an electrical current to adjust the color of each pixel.

Several rare earth elements are used to produce the colors on screen.

3. Electronics

Smartphones employ multiple antenna systems, such as Bluetooth, GPS, and WiFi.

The distance between these antenna systems is usually small making it extremely difficult to achieve flawless performance. Capacitors made of the rare, hard, blue-gray metal tantalum are used for filtering and frequency tuning.

Nickel is also used in capacitors and in mobile phone electrical connections. Another silvery metal, gallium, is used in semiconductors.

4. Microphone, Speakers, Vibration Unit

Nickel is used in the microphone diaphragm (that vibrates in response to sound waves).

Alloys containing rare earths neodymium, praseodymium and gadolinium are used in the magnets contained in the speaker and microphone. Neodymium, terbium and dysprosium are also used in the vibration unit.

5. Casing

There are many materials used to make phone cases, such as plastic, aluminum, carbon fiber, and even gold. Commonly, the cases have nickel to reduce electromagnetic interference (EMI) and magnesium alloys for EMI shielding.

6. Battery

Unless you bought your smartphone a decade ago, your device most likely carries a lithium-ion battery, which is charged and discharged by lithium ions moving between the negative (anode) and positive (cathode) electrodes.

What’s Next?

Smartphones will naturally evolve as consumers look for ever-more useful features. Foldable phones, 5G technology with higher download speeds, and extra cameras are just a few of the changes expected.

As technology continues to improve, so will the demand for the metals necessary for the next generation of smartphones.

This post was originally featured on Elements

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Mining

Silver Through the Ages: The Uses of Silver Over Time

The uses of silver span various industries, from renewable energy to jewelry. See how the uses of silver have evolved in this infographic.

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uses of silver

Silver is one of the most versatile metals on Earth, with a unique combination of uses both as a precious and industrial metal.

Today, silver’s uses span many modern technologies, including solar panels, electric vehicles, and 5G devices. However, the uses of silver in currency, medicine, art, and jewelry have helped advance civilization, trade, and technology for thousands of years.

The Uses of Silver Over Time

The below infographic from Blackrock Silver takes us on a journey of silver’s uses through time, from the past to the future.

3,000 BC – The Middle Ages

The earliest accounts of silver can be traced to 3,000 BC in modern-day Turkey, where its mining spurred trade in the ancient Aegean and Mediterranean seas. Traders and merchants would use hacksilver—rough-cut pieces of silver—as a medium of exchange for goods and services.

Around 1,200 BC, the Ancient Greeks began refining and minting silver coins from the rich deposits found in the mines of Laurion just outside Athens. By 100 BC, modern-day Spain became the center of silver mining for the Roman Empire while silver bullion traveled along the Asian spice trade routes. By the late 1400s, Spain brought its affinity for silver to the New World where it uncovered the largest deposits of silver in history in the dusty hills of Bolivia.

Besides the uses of silver in commerce, people also recognized silver’s ability to fight bacteria. For instance, wine and food containers were often made out of silver to prevent spoilage. In addition, during breakouts of the Bubonic plague in medieval and renaissance Europe, people ate and drank with silver utensils to protect themselves from disease.

The 1800s – 2000s

New medicinal uses of silver came to light in the 19th and 20th centuries. Surgeons stitched post-operative wounds with silver sutures to reduce inflammation. In the early 1900s, doctors prescribed silver nitrate eyedrops to prevent conjunctivitis in newborn babies. Furthermore, in the 1960s, NASA developed a water purifier that dispensed silver ions to kill bacteria and purify water on its spacecraft.

The Industrial Revolution drove the onset of silver’s industrial applications. Thanks to its high light sensitivity and reflectivity, it became a key ingredient in photographic films, windows, and mirrors. Even today, skyscraper windows are often coated with silver to reflect sunlight and keep interior spaces cool.

The 2000s – Present

The uses of silver have come a long way since hacksilver and utensils, evolving with time and technology.

Silver is the most electrically conductive metal, making it a natural choice for electronic devices. Almost every electronic device with a switch or button contains silver, from smartphones to electric vehicles. Solar panels also utilize silver as a conductive layer in photovoltaic cells to transport and store electricity efficiently.

In addition, it has several medicinal applications that range from treating burn wounds and ulcers to eliminating bacteria in air conditioning systems and clothes.

Silver for the Future

Silver has always been useful to industries and technologies due to its unique properties, from its antibacterial nature to high electrical conductivity. Today, silver is critical for the next generation of renewable energy technologies.

For every age, silver proves its value.

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