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As demand for nickel grows, so do environmental concerns – report

Nickel ore. (Image by James St. John, Flickr).

A new report by IDTechEx states that as the demand for nickel from electric vehicle batteries is expected to increase ten-fold by 2030 compared to 2019, concerns around the environmentally-conscious supply of the metal are also on the rise.

According to the market analyst, one of the main problems surrounding nickel mining is that ores normally contain only a very small percentage of useful Ni, resulting in a large amount of waste material.

The disposing of this waste represents a major concern for miners, carmakers and environmentalists.

Nickel is the most expensive material in electric vehicle batteries after cobalt

“Recently it has been announced that two nickel mining companies in Indonesia are planning to use deep-sea disposal for the raw material waste into the Coral Triangle as they ramp up operations,” the report states.

“Less than 20 nickel mines worldwide use deep-sea disposal, but these new facilities would account for millions of tonnes of waste material each year. This method is typically used because it is cheaper than the alternatives of dam storage or converting the raw materials to useful products.”

Indonesia accounts for the largest supply of nickel. In 2019, the country banned exports of raw nickel ore to boost their domestic processing industry. The island country also has the most planned developments for increasing nickel production and is set to dominate the supply chain. 

On the other side of the spectrum, back in 2017, the Philippines government suspended nearly half of its nickel mines citing environmental concerns.

Almost equally concerned are many automakers, IDTechex’s report says. They worry that negative actions in this realm may undermine the environmentally friendly message of the electric vehicle

“Most, including the likes of PSA, VW and Tesla, have pledged to reduce the environmental impact of their batteries. This becomes challenging as the choice of suppliers that can meet the demands of these large automotive companies is limited,” the report reads.

“In the future, nickel producers will have to prove that their practices are environmentally friendly if they want to sell into the European and American markets, where the automotive industry is making this a priority.”

The need for nickel in both of these regions is growing because of consumer demand for EVs and because, in their quest to improve the energy density further and reduce the dependence on cobalt, automakers are moving towards higher nickel chemistries such as lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide 622 or 811 over the previous 111 and 52.

Nickel is the most expensive material in electric vehicle batteries after cobalt and is also one of the most highly used outside of the battery industry.